Devotional – Hebrews 12.1-2

Devotional:

Hebrews 12.1-2

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Weekly Devotional Image             On Saturday afternoon, by God’s will, we will gather on the front lawn of St. John’s UMC with a cohort from the community. Our third Annual Community Cook-Out will be filled with familiar and strange faces, we will have more food than we’ll know what to do with, we’ll have children jumping on bouncy houses, and we’ll even have a dunk tank set up (I’ll be the first to be knocked in!). For years and years this church has stood in the middle of the community, but for too long it has been disconnected from the lives of the people in the immediate neighborhood. Therefore, the Cook-Out is our opportunity to share Christ’s love with those who surround us.

During the last two Cook-Outs it has been a joy to see strangers becoming friends through a shared meal and fellowship, but there is always the temptation to stay where we feel comfortable and only talk to the people we know. The Cook-Out is by no means an attempt to “evangelize the neighborhood” and get everyone saved. But if we are not willing to follow the example of Christ by reaching out to strangers, then the church is failing to be the body of Christ for the world.

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St. John’s exists and thrives because of the great cloud of witnesses that brought us to where we are. We owe a great deal to the saints who have come before us, the ones who first invited us to discover God’s love in a place like this, and now the time has come for us to follow them on the path to Christlikeness. For it is when we humble ourselves, when we disregard the shame of embarrassment, we join together with the one who never knew a stranger, the one who came to change the world, the one who has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

To follow Jesus on the way that leads to life requires us to actually act like him here and now. It means crucifying our selfish ways and opinions so that we might encounter the other without pretense. It means laying aside every weight that prevents us from sharing the Good News. It means running the race with perseverance so that we might bless others in the same ways we that we have been blessed.

An Example – Sermon on Luke 12.32-34

Luke 12.32-34

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

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Meanwhile, when the crowds gathered by the thousands to hear him talk, so many in fact that they began to trample on one another, Jesus rose to speak. He warned his disciples against hypocrisy – live honest lives. He instructed them to confess fearlessly – all who earnestly repent will be forgiven. He shared the parable of the rich fool – you can’t take your money to heaven. And then he gave them some final instructions:

“Do not be afraid little sheep! For it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give away your money, use your gifts to bless others here and now. For where your treasure it, there your heart will be also.”

Sometimes Christians drive me crazy. You know, the super pious ones who are forever wearing their faith on their sleeves; the ones who stand on the street corners of life blasting off about some passage or another; the ones who come knocking on your door and try to sell you on the gift of eternal life instead of the fires of hell.

Have you ever met or encountered a Christian like that? I can’t help but feel like they are the kinds of Christians that are giving the rest of us Christians a bad name. Jesus never instructed his disciples to act like the people from Westboro Baptist church who are forever picketing the funerals of people whom they believe did not live up to Christ’s expectations. Jesus never called his disciples to be racist or bigoted toward peoples of different nationalities, or race, or creed, or sexual orientation. Jesus never implored the disciples to use fear mongering to convince people to come to church or otherwise be threatened with the fires of eternal punishment. Yet, if you turn on the news, or get online, those are the kinds of Christians we hear about the most; the ones who give the rest of us Christians a bad name.

Like Hillary Clinton proudly claiming to be a Methodist over and over again, and how much her Methodism has shaped her politics. But we know that she has gone back and forth on a number of issues and made untruthful claims when the bible is pretty clear: you shall not bear false witness.

Or like Donald Trump who, when asked about his faith said that he’s never needed to pray for forgiveness and when asked about his favorite scripture was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Except the scripture he was talking about actually goes like this: “You have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.’”

Just once I would like a good Christian to be featured for all to see; someone who has absorbed the Word throughout his or her life and has lived accordingly; someone who believes the good news is so good, that is worth sharing not to fill the pews, but to fill hearts; someone who could stand like an earthly example for the rest of us to catch a glimpse of the ways Jesus calls us to behave.

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This winter I was asked to be a guest preacher at Augusta Street UMC just down the road. We had a midweek and midday service and I decided to preach about how good it is when we dwell together in unity. The service was well received and we gathered in the social hall after worship for a light lunch. I walked around for a couple minutes until I found an empty chair next to Wilford Kirby who was deeply engrossed in a conversation with someone else.

Elsewhere in the room, United Methodists from all of the churches in our town were sitting with their friends from their churches. Like cliques in a high school, the Central folk were at one table, the Cherryvale folk at another, and so on. But Wilford refused to be subject to this paradigm. He was sitting with the preacher from Augusta Street, though I don’t think he knew that he was the preacher. Because I eavesdropped on the end of their conversation, and the last thing Wilford said to the preacher was: “You should come try out our church on Sundays.”

Anyway, I sat with Wilford and he was quick to make a couple comments about their church facility in comparison with ours, offered a few critiques on how my sermon could have been better, and continued to eat his soup and sandwiches. I had other things to get done that afternoon, so after I finished eating I excused myself and told Wilford that I’d see him in church on Sunday and left.

Not fifteen minutes later was my phone ringing. When I answered all I heard was: “Wilford fell, broke some ribs, on his way to the hospital.”

I immediately turned my car toward the direction of Augusta health and beat the ambulance to the Emergency Department. But because they needed to do some x-rays and have him checked out I wasn’t able to get back, and he didn’t want me to anyway.

The next day I showed up at his house and banged on his door until he slowly made his way to the front of the house and let me in. I should have been a little more compassionate and patient regarding the fact that he was walking around with a few broken ribs, but I wanted to know what happened. I wanted to make sure he was okay. I wanted to pray for him.

And as we sat down in his basement, before I could even open my mouth, he asked me how I was doing, and then went through the list of everyone he had been praying for and wanted updates since he had been out of the loop for a whole day.

Wilford Kirby is the kind of Christian that makes the rest of us Christians look better.

Wilford Kirby is an example to us all about what it means to follow Christ in this life.

Luke, in this passage about our treasures and our hearts, calls for us to put first things first. The things of the Lord are to be the most urgent and pressing priority in every Christian’s life. We are not to be afraid nor are we to succumb to the worldly distractions of wealth that constantly distract us from God’s love and care. There are no wallets, or stock portfolios, or bonds that will not wear out in time. God promises not to fill us with earthly wealth and material possessions, but instead surprises us with the gift of the kingdom.

Receiving this gift, the kingdom, makes us rich beyond our ability to comprehend. But being rich toward God is not about putting sizable sums in the offering plate during worship. What Jesus rejoices in, is our reorientation toward the whole of life as an abundant gift from a generous God – a gift that can be given away with abandon.

Wilford Kirby has given his life to the kingdom, because the kingdom was first given to him.

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He has easily attended more worship services than anyone in this church over the last three years, including me (and I’m the pastor!). On Sunday mornings Wilford is the first layperson to enter the sanctuary making sure our heat is pumping in the winter, and the AC is on during the summer. He checks the lights for optimum worship participation, and he checks through the bulletins to make sure everything will go smoothly.

Every winter he sits out in his truck for hours on end waiting for people to come take a peek at our Christmas trees and offer them his assistance. Even though we have a giant sign advertising the times the lot will be open, Wilford believes in being present for the kind of people who ignore signs like those.

He is here an hour before our special services throughout the year like Ash Wednesday, and Good Friday, and Christmas Eve just in case anyone arrives extra early.

He is almost always the first person to show up in my office to find out how someone from our church is doing and how he can be praying for him or her.

For years he has mowed the lawn of our church and took care of the property as a volunteer. He never complained; he never sought recognition; he never wanted praise. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been sitting in the comfort of my air-conditioned office day-dreaming about God when I’d see Wilford come flying past my window on the lawn mower with a smile hidden underneath his dust-mask.

Wilford has been here for every funeral since I arrived. Even for people he never knew. Yet he always stands in the back greeting people as they walk in, not because he was asked to, not because he was told to, be because he believes it’s the right thing to do.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

            The greatest treasure that Wilford Kirby has offered this church has been his very life, and he has given it with abandon.

But why? Wilford could be spending his precious time working with other civic organizations trying to make the world better. He could be spending his afternoons on the golf course or relaxing in the comfort of his home. He could use his life to do any number of things, but instead he has given it to this church.

My suspicion is that Wilford has given his life to the church because he knows and has experienced how the kingdom was given to him, and he wants to share that gift with others. He trusts that the Lord will provide. He humbly obeys the commands to love even the unlovable. He has seen first-hand how the kingdom of God can become manifest in other peoples’ lives. He put his treasure in this place because his heart has always been here. He wants other people to be blessed in the ways that he has been blessed. So he shows up. He prays. He cares. He loves. And he is an example to us all.

But that’s not to say that Wilford is perfect; he’s not. There are plenty of Sunday mornings when I finish a service and walk down the center aisle only to see Wilford standing in the back with his arm outstretched and his finger pulling me in as if to say, “Let me offer a suggestion.” Or there have been plenty of times that I’ve heard his footsteps walking down the hallway and I know from the texture of his tempo that he’s coming not to congratulate me on something but to complain about something that has happened in the church. But the thing is, even when Wilford is frustrated or upset it is because he believes our church can be better. He believes that we are part of the kingdom and we can’t be just like any other church. He expects excellence precisely because that’s what God expects from all of us.

Being rich toward God involves a generosity of spirit that opens our perceptions toward God’s generosity. Wilford knows how blessed he is, for the kind of life that he has had, and therefore he knows no other way to live than the way that he does.

Theses words from Jesus first meant for the crowd, and now meant for us, decisively interrupt our lives in this place and on this day calling us to focus not on the demands of the overly scheduled life, but on the Lord who comes in surprising ways to offer comfort, assurance, and love. Through these words we hear Jesus telling us that the time is now to start living a new life, not dictated by the past, but defined by God’s belief in our future. God uses people like us, people like Wilford, to make the kingdom manifest so that lasting joy will come to God’s little flock we call the church.

At this table, where Wilford has come time and time again, we receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ. In this profound moment we are offered the kingdom again even though we do not deserve it. We come forward with hands outstretched remembering this incredible gift that has been given without cost. And by receiving this gift, we cannot help ourselves but live transformed lives.

So come and see that the Lord is good. Feast at this table where heaven and earth are bound together. Join together with Wilford Kirby as he walks to the front to receive the gift of the kingdom once again. And let it change your life like it has changed his. Amen.

Devotional – 1 Thessalonians 1.6-7

Devotional:

1 Thessalonians 1.6-7

And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 

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There is a burden that comes with being a Christian leader (or as the Spiderman comics would put it: with great power comes great responsibility). Just as in the day of Paul, we, as Christians, are expected to imitate the Lord through our actions, so that we can be examples to all other people. The great challenge with this responsibility comes with the temptation to use the power we have been given for ourselves, rather than for God’s kingdom.

For too many years some Christians leaders and preachers have tended to elevate their ministry to such a staggering degree that they become more important than the living God whom they claim to follow. I have seen churches that have no images of Christ displayed in the sanctuary, no cross to remember the great act of the incarnate God, and nothing else that would lead anyone to know that the gathered people were Christians. I remember visiting a church when I lived in Harrisonburg, Virginia that looked like a music venue and by the time the service was over I realized that the triune God was not mentioned even once. It seemed that doing church, for them, was more about living a good life based on the standards imposed by the leaders rather than a profound commitment to discover the living God and follow Christ.

Grunewald's Crucifixion

Grunewald’s Crucifixion

When the great theologian Karl Barth was a pastor in Basel, Switzerland he discovered Matthias Grunewald’s depiction of the crucifixion and kept a copy of it on his desk throughout his ministry, from his days as a young pastor until his death. Barth believed the work of art was a worthy metaphor for Christians; John the Baptist stands off to the side holding an open bible while pointing away from himself to Christ on the cross. Christians, at their best, are called to be like John and point away from themselves to the incredible Christ who is the only one worthy of our imitation. We point toward Christ through our words and actions, while also remembering the distance between us and Christ; we will never live exactly like him, but we nevertheless strive to imitate him in our living.

When I learned about Barth’s affection for the Grunewald piece, I made sure to find a copy for my office. It is the first thing I see when someone enters my office, and the last thing I see before heading to the sanctuary for worship. It hangs at eye sight right next to the door as a constant reminder about my responsibility to point toward Christ and not myself.

How do you imitate the Lord in your daily life? Where in your life can you point to Christ so that others can come to know the love of God?

Weekly Devotional – 2/3/14

Devotional:

Matthew 5.14:

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”

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For years this verse has served to defend the example that Christians are to make for the world to follow. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says, “a city built on a hill cannot be hid.” Which is to say, you are shining as a light for others to see the error of their ways. Just as a city on a hill can be seen by all, so will your discipleship shine gloriously in order to transform the world.

But what if we’ve been reading it wrong? Or at least, what if there is a different way to read that verse?

Christians are almost always under the proverbial magnifying glass within the local community and at large. Just turn on the news and you will hear of scandals in Catholic and Protestant churches. The smallest bit of controversial news can take on a completely different manner once it is revealed that a Christian is part of the spectacle. Whether we recognize it or not, the world has expectations of us regarding our behavior and commitment to the gospel; we are held to a standard of excellence by those within, and those outside of, the church.

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In many ways the verse from Matthew could be read as, “You must be like a city on a hill, like a lamp in full view.” The desire to appear perfect as an example for all others is worthy of consideration and application, however, we need to remember that we will continue to fall short of God’s glory; we are not perfect beings. We are under the microscope of the community because of our commitment to be God’s people for the world.

So, instead of self-righteously proclaiming that we are the perfect example for the world to follow, perhaps we should instead recognize how visible we are to the world. Our faithful discipleship should be driven by our love of God, rather than wanting to the world to see how great and wonderful we are. Let us all strive to be the light of the world, not for our own glory, but for the glory of God to shine through us.