Devotional – John 14.18

Devotional:

John 14.18

I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.

Weekly Devotional Image

I stood by the bell tower in my robe and I casually greeted everyone as they walked into the building for worship. Just inside the doors were greeters, ushers, and handful of other church members eagerly waiting to address those entering with greetings and salutations. I talked with individuals and families under the bell tower and when one particular woman stepped forward she was greeted by the small crowd with, “Happy Mother’s Day!” and she immediately grimaced; she is not a mother, and will never be one.

On Monday I spoke with a member of the church about a number of matters pertaining to the local community and right before we said goodbye she apologized for not being in church the day before. I asked if everything was okay, or if there was a specific reason she avoided church to which she responded, “I never come to church on Mother’s Day. It just hits too close to home.” She is not a mother, and will never be one.

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Mother’s Day is a strange Sunday in the liturgical life of the church. There is nothing in scripture about the need to have a specific day focused on the glorification of those who are mothers, but in many churches that is exactly what it becomes. And it happens to such a degree that while trying to be grateful for mothers, we often ostracize a sizable community within our churches who can’t be, don’t want to be, or never will be, mothers.

To so emphasize and value the roles of the presumed normative domestic situation does a disservice to the truth of what the church is called to be: the new family.

Jesus, near the end of his earthly life, promised to not leave his friends orphaned. In a sense Jesus’ promise is a prediction of his own death and resurrection, but it also speaks to the future existence of the community of faith. Just as Jesus’ friends were not abandoned after the cross, so too have we not been abandoned in our communities of faith.

Through the sacraments of baptism and communion we are grafted into a community whereby the common identifiers and labels of mother and father are no longer limited by their biological connections. Instead we become brother and sister and mother and father to the entire community that gathers together to encounter the living God.

Being a mother is a remarkable responsibility and should be lauded on a regular basis, but it is not the most important identity that one can have. Following Jesus Christ as a disciple implies a willingness to be maternal toward all people regardless of whether or not we are biological mothers.

In the community of faith we are called to open our eyes to the realities of those around us so that, rather than discomforting someone on their way in or ostracizing someone to the point that they don’t even come, we remember that God will not leave us orphaned, not even in church.

Less Preaching, More Praying

Psalm 119.33-40

Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways. Confirm to your servant your promise, which is for those who fear you. Turn away the disgrace that I dread, for your ordinances are good. See, I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life.

 

I’ve mentioned The Circle in a number of recent sermons, and for good reason. Every week, our youth gather together as a witness to the loving nature of God made manifest in their lives. While others their age are consumed by that which they consume: the Internet, social media, attention from co-eds, false identities, and even politics, our kids are consumed by another thing they consume: the body and the blood of Jesus Christ.

But I don’t want to lay it on too thick. I love our youth, but they can be miserable at the same time. I have never been more self-conscious about my balding head than when one of our boys insists on bringing the subject up every single week. (Honestly, I think he does it not because he cares about my lack of follicles, but because he enjoys watching my reaction to his provocation.)

Another one of our youth will miss a meeting (too much homework, play practice, or some other obligation) only to have her brother tell me that she’s not at The Circle because a recent sermon I preached made her lose her faith.

Another one of our youth will purposely pretend like he can’t find a particular book in the bible, forcing one of us to flip through and declare the page number only to have him smile diabolically in return.

Like I said, we’ve got wonderful and miserable youth at this church.

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions, we follow the same formula every week – we gather around the table for communion, fellowship, and bible study. Communion looks a lot like it does in this room whereby we pray together for God to pour out the Holy Spirit on us, and on the gifts of bread and the cup. And after we feast we go to the box.

The box contains a random assortment of questions designed to get all of us to share and reflect on what it means to be faithful. An example: “Who do you trust the most and why?” The question propels us to think about the value of our friendships, and implores us to be thankful for the people we trust.

One of the more frustrating questions is: “When was the last time you shared your faith with someone?” Everyone always sighs deeply when that one is pulled, but one by one they’ll each struggle to share a moment from the last week or so when they talked with someone about their faith.

But recently we read a new question: “If you could change one thing about the church what would it be and why?” Without hesitation, my follicle-conscious friend said, “I’d get rid of the preacher!” Another youth however, took the question seriously and said she would make the youth group larger so we could share the stories of Jesus with more people.

One by one each youth got a chance to reflect about a particular change to the church, and we ended with our adult volunteer for the evening. You see, everyone has to answer the question from the box whether you’re in the sixth grade of you’re sixty.

After giving the question some deep thought she said, “I’d get rid of the preaching… I’ve always thought that preaching in worship was okay, but it’s not the most important part of what we do. Sometimes you go on a little too long. But I would definitely increase our prayer time. In fact, what if all we did was pray?”

I got burned.

The preaching on Sunday is a little long? Seriously? You all should be grateful! I get you out of here before the Baptist churches in town every week, and we want to talk about the length of the sermon?!

I’m only teasing. But maybe she’s on to something. What if we prayed more, and I preached less?

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The psalmist, at least the author of Psalm 119, was a praying poet pleading with God. No preaching, no pontificating; only praying.

Teach me Lord, give me understanding, lead me in the path of your commandments, turn my heart to your decrees, turn my eyes from looking at vanities, give me life.

Where does this life of prayer come from? Praying like the psalmist requires an awareness of God’s presence. We can pray like the psalmist when we poetically plead with God, not to show that we are above anyone else, not out of arrogance, but with remarkable humility and hope – we ask God to give us what only God can give us.

And we can dispense with polite trivialities. No more do we need to start our prayers with a listing of God’s divine attributes, no more do we need a long list of adjectives before we begin to converse with the Lord. We need only pause, breathe, and then declare our faith in the Lord who hears and responds to our prayers.

Teach us, O Lord, your ways and we will follow on the path to the end. Give us understanding God, so that we can observe your will here on earth with our whole hearts. Lead us on your paths and we will delight in traveling the way that leads to life. Turn our hearts to your commandments, and not to our own selfish and arrogant ambitions. Turn our eyes from looking at vanities, the things that fade away, the things that do not give life, and instead give us life in you. Confirm to us your promises God because we are worthy when we fear you. Turn away the disgrace that we are ashamed of, for you are forgiving. O God, we have longed for your will; nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. In your righteousness, give us life.

When those words become our words, when we can utter them with true faith and humility, when we can ask for God’s will to be done and mean it, then our prayers will always mean more than my preaching. As Karl Barth said, when we clasp our hands together in prayer, it is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.

Because this is what we need God to do for us. We need God’s help to empower our uprising against the disorder of the world. We need God to teach us, to lead us, and to turn us. We cannot do this stuff on our own.

God, thank you for gathering us together in this place, at this time, with these people to call on you to make us into your people. Come to us now! Awaken us! Give us your light! Be our Teacher and our Comforter! Speak to us through the scriptures, through the prayers, through the hymns, through the sermon, so that we may hear just what we need and what will help. Preserve us by your Word; protect us from hypocrisy, error, boredom, and distraction. Give us knowledge and hope and joy.

We can pray like that. We can pray like the psalmist. We can do it from the comfort of our bedrooms when we wake up and right before we fall asleep. We can pray from the depths of our souls in this holy place whenever we gather together. Our prayers can be as long and as profound as the entirety of Psalm 119, or they can be as short and as simple as: Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

Praying to God is a good and right thing because it actively makes us participate with the divine. Praying calls us to question the status quo, and to wonder about what could be. Praying challenges us to see ourselves for who we really are and to ask for God’s help to be better. Prayer changes things, and more often than not the thing that prayer changes is us.

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But sometimes we need to be prayed for, more than we need to pray for ourselves. Do you hear the difference? It is good and right for us to pray to the Lord like the psalmist, but at the heart of being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a willingness to share our burdens and needs with others, and to receive their prayers for us when we cannot pray on our own.

Years ago, I helped lead a mission trip to Costa Rica. We went for a week, and I was responsible for keeping track of the youth at our different work sites, and led devotions each night. A large focus of the trip was partnering with the local community in order to empower them, rather than helping with something only to disappear a few days later.

Every day, whether we were working on construction for a new school building, or we were helping young children in a day care program, the whole trip was about creating relationships with people.

Of course, for some of us, myself included, this was quite a difficult task since there was a language barrier. We quickly learned to speak with our hands and with the few words we knew of each other’s languages, and we did the best we could.

At the end of the trip I asked the youth to each pair up with someone they connected with during the week, but not someone from our own team. The kids quickly dispersed to find the friends they made over the week and I watched my sister Haley walk over to Jose. Haley and Jose were the same age; both had wonderful and loving personalities; but they couldn’t have been more different.

One grew up with all the advantages and privileges of an American who grew up outside of Washington D.C. The other lived day to day without a clear understanding of what the future held.

And yet, even though they spoke different languages, and had different hopes, and different dreams, they sat down together and prayed for each other. Haley went first, she prayed for Jose and lifted him up to the Lord. I only later realized it was the first time that Haley had ever prayed for another person out loud. And after Haley said “amen” Jose grabbed her by the hands and prayed for her.

Haley could not understand a word he uttered, but she wept as Jose prayed for her.

I know this is going to drive some of you crazy, but I am here not just to comfort the afflicted, but also to afflict the comfortable. So, in just a moment, we are going to pray for one another. You will feel tempted to find one of your friends in the congregation, someone you are comfortable with, but we all need to resist that temptation. We are going to stand up, and move about the sanctuary until we find someone we are not as familiar with, and they will be our prayer partners. And we’re going to talk to them. We’re going to listen to them. We’re going to pray for them. And they are going to do the same for us.

Remember, God does not need ornate and complicated prayers; God only needs our hearts. Pray for one another as you feel led, and then I will lead us in a congregational prayer. So, let us pray.

We are afraid, God, and we believe we can and should hide ourselves from you. We did it in the Garden, we did it in the wilderness, and we still do it today. We even think we can hide from ourselves. For better or worse, usually for worse, our desire to hide scatters and shatters our identity in you. As a result, we begin to hate ourselves, our families, our neighbors, and even You. We hate ourselves, and one another, because You refuse to believe that we are the masks we wear. God, help us learn to trust your love. Help us to learn we do not need to pretend to be something we are not. Help us accept that we are who we are because of You. Forgive us God. And as forgiven people, help us follow your Son in this world shaped by lies and deception. As your forgiven people, make us your salvation, that the world might see how good and great it is to be who we are, your children. Amen.

Strange Stories from Scripture: An Idiot And His Donkey – Sermon on Numbers 22.22-30

Numbers 22.22-30

God’s anger was kindled because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. The donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; so the donkey turned off the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the donkey, to turn it back onto the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it scraped against the wall, and scraped Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck it again. Then the angel of the Lord went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now.” But the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?” And he said, “No.”

This morning starts the beginning of our three-part sermon series on Strange Stories from Scripture. For the next three Sundays we will be looking at those wonderful moments from the bible that they never talked about in Sunday school. These are the passages that make us blush, raise our eyebrows, and leave us scratching our heads.

Many of us are familiar with the well-known stories of Moses leading the Israelites through the wilderness, we know all about King David and his kingdom, we can recall the miracles of Jesus, but the bible is also full of tales that are just begging to be used in worship and our daily lives. Our first story is from the book of Numbers regarding the prophet Balaam and his donkey.

Bible Stories 1

(Put on the prophet costume) My name is Balaam and have I got a story for you. All these preachers try to explain what happened and make sense of my life, but they never get it right. Even some of the writers from the bible got real nasty and used me as an example:

Peter said “They have left the straight road and gone astray, following the road of Balaam, who loved the wages of doing wrong, but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with a human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness.” (2 Peter 2.15)

Jude wrote “Woe to the people who are wrong, for they go the way of Cain, and abandon themselves to Balaam’s error for the sake of gain.” (Jude 1:11)

And even the guy your church is named after had something to say: “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam and eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication.” (Revelation 2.14)

Harsh.

The truth is, I had a good gig, and I made the best out of it. I was a prophet of prophets, blessed with the powers of divination. I got lucky at the beginning, made a few good choices, used my words the right way, and stories about my powers began to spread.

Going through a dry-spell? For an affordable rate I would come out to your field and pray for the heavens to open up and the rain to pour forth: half due up front, and the other half on delivery.

Frustrated with your in-laws? With a reasonable down-payment I would travel to your relatives house and pray over their domicile for clear-heads and harmonious perspectives. Satisfaction NOT guaranteed.

Unsure of your future? With an easy set of monthly installments I would read your palms and tell you what was coming. I see an argument that remains unsettled… I predict days of joy and days of sorrow… You will be very cold in the winter and very warm in the summer… You will not get what you want for your birthday… Your wife will insist that you help with housework… Your husband will forget your anniversary…

I had a good gig and word spread quickly. Frankly, back in those days, people were willing to pay whatever I asked if they thought it could work. They were looking for cheap miracles at a high price, and I was the man to get the job done.

That’s when the King of Moab, a guy named Balak, entered my life. He had heard about this nation that had escaped Egypt, they called themselves the Israelites, and he wanted me to curse them. Now I wasn’t much for curses, but for the right price I would do anything.

We struck up a contract but before I signed the dotted line, the Lord appeared to me in a dream and told me not to curse God’s people, so I called the whole thing off.

But the king’s men came back and they offered me even more money, houses full of silver and gold. The Lord appeared again in a dream, telling me to go, but only to do and speak as he told me to.

When it came time to go, the money was speaking louder than the Lord so I set off on my trusted donkey, with dreams of swimming pools filled with gold and rooms covered in silver. Ready to say and do whatever it took to get my reward.

Time-out. (Remove prophet costume, and put on donkey costume)

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What an idiot! Can you believe he called himself a prophet of prophets? More like a prophet of profit. I loved Balaam, I carried him everywhere he needed to go, but he was an idiot. Do you know how many times his false promises got us in trouble? I never knew anyone that could smile with such confidence knowing that he was selling hypocrisy. He was like all those televangelists wrapped up in one, and the people couldn’t get enough of it. It never made any sense to me.

What an idiot! The Lord finally gave him permission to go, but Balaam was far more concerned with what he wanted, than what the Lord wanted. (Remove donkey costume, and put on prophet costume).

With the donkey carrying me steadily along toward the king of Moab, I started preparing my plan of attack. For a curse of locusts and famine was a fixed rate, but I could throw in a flood for an extra 15%. I mean, when the king asks you to curse, he surely would have the means to pay for the big stuff.

But as I started tallying up the totals, the dumb donkey turned off the road and started walking into a field! So I picked up my switch and I let him have it.

Later on the journey, when I had finally got the curse prepared with all sorts of big and made-up words, the donkey scraped my foot against a wall! That fool really felt it when I hit him that time.

And finally, when we were close to our destination, the donkey laid down in the middle of the road and just sat there! I was furious, I was Balaam the prophet, so I picked up my switch and hit him for a third time. (Remove prophet costume, and put on donkey costume)

What an idiot. God was so angry with Balaam that he sent an angel of the Lord to kill him on the path, but he was so blinded by his love of money that he saw nothing. I knew that if I did not go into the field, or run us into the wall, or fall down in the path, that the angel of the Lord would surely kill my master.

But after Balaam hit me for the third time, something incredible happened. The Lord opened my mouth and I said to Balaam: “What have I done to you, that you have struck me three times? Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden your whole life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?”

Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, ready to kill him. Oh I wish you could’ve been there to see him fall straight to the ground, shaking and quaking in fear. That self-centered prophet of profit saw the error of his ways, and prayed for forgiveness from the Lord. (Remove donkey costume, and put on prophet costume.)

And would you believe it? The Lord told me to get up and say what he told me to say, and do what he told me to do. I met with King Balak, he showed me all the riches I was about to receive, and then he led me out to the Israelites. He told me to curse them, but when I went out to open my arms for the prayer, the Lord told me to bless them. So I did. (remove costume)

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Balaam was supposed to be a prophet, someone who sees more than most, someone attuned to the will of God, and yet his donkey saw more than he did. Without that persistent reminder from the donkey carrying him on the road, Balaam would have been killed by his love of money and would have missed the opportunity for transformation.

I know a man who made a lot of money doing what he did, and spent more hours than most glued to his phone for work. One afternoon he came home and his son asked if they could play catch in the backyard. “No, no, no,” he said, “I’ve got too much work to do.” About a month later the son asked if his dad would pick him up from baseball practice to meet some of his friends, but the father had a business commitment so he said no. At the end of the season the son asked his father to come to his final baseball game to see him play, but a emergency happened at work, so the son played without his father in the stands.

Sometime later the family was getting ready to go on vacation and the father was fretting about whether or not his business would be alright without him and he spent the evening frantically packing whatever he could grab. When he turned around from the closet he saw his son stand in the door way holding an envelope. The young boy walked up to his father, and with the slightest quiver in his lip he handed him the envelope and said, “Dad, I’ve saved all my allowance from the last few months all the money I got for my birthday and I want to give it to you.” The father stood there in stunned silence as the boy finished: “but only if you promise to leave your phone at home when we leave for vacation.

There are many donkeys in our lives, hoping to redirect our attention to the path in front of us. Be it a son vying for our attention, a sermon that strikes at our hearts, or a simple remark from a friend, the donkeys are there.

The good news is the fact that we get these little reminders at all! That rather than leaving us to our own devices, the Lord is active and alive in our midst. In our prayers we remember the world is much bigger than just ourselves. In the words of scripture we see faint reflections of ourselves and we are transformed by God’s grace. And in the bread and wine at this table we experience the one who gave his life for us, so that we might give our lives for others. Amen.

The Problem With Families Today – Sermon on Mark 3.20-30

Mark 3.20-30

And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom id divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” – for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

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What a strange story. Jesus has been going around healing people and listening to their stories, he has called the twelve disciples together and announced what their ministry will be, and now so many people have gathered together to see this incredible man, that they couldn’t even eat. And what happens? His family catches wind of the crowds gathering and they go out to stop Jesus because they thought he was going out of his mind.

But then the scribes from Jerusalem arrive and accuse him of having a demon. Does this passage sound bizarre to you? Beelzebub? Satan? Demons?

Jesus hears the accusations and then responds in parables, furthering the confusion of the crowds and modern readers: “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If someone entered the house of a rich man, they would not be able to steal anything unless the man was first tied up. Truly, people will be forgiven their sins and doubts, but anyone who ignores what the Holy Spirit is doing will be guilty of an eternal sin.”

What? I don’t know about you, but when I come across passages like this I am often left scratching my head about what Jesus is saying. I read words like Beelzebub and Satan and I can’t help myself from questioning the text. I read about Jesus’ family appearing to restrain him and I can’t help but agree with them; maybe Jesus has lost his mind.

Who can blame them for trying to get him under control? If not out of fear for his life, at least to remove their own embarrassment for what he was doing and saying. We all have a need to uphold our reputations amidst the crowds of life and if a family member starts going out and proclaiming strange things, it might reflect poorly on us.

A few summers ago I had the opportunity to attend the Detroit Annual Conference session in Michigan. For a few days, clergy and lay representatives gathered together to worship the Lord, pray for the renewal of the church, and vote on pertinent matters affecting the denomination.

When I arrived the assembly was debating whether or not secretaries should be allowed to keep handguns in the church offices to protect themselves. Later that afternoon they argued about the bishop sending a letter to the President Obama about whether or not unmanned drones should be allowed to fly over the Upper Peninsula.

When the evening rolled around, I was invited by a colleague to attend the “Young Adult” gathering. I thought that sounded splendid after spending what felt like eternity with a bunch of blue-haired Methodists, so I quickly made my way to the basement of a nearby building. I assumed the designation “Young Adult” meant that I would be spending time with people in their mid-twenties to early-thirties, but it was just a bunch of high-schoolers and myself. Nevertheless I had a wonderful time with the group as we talked and prayed together for the future of the church.

That night I had one of the most powerful conversations of my life with a 16 year old boy named Sam. After introducing ourselves to one another, Sam informed me that this was his 8th Annual Conference in a row. He came for the first time when he was 8 years old and had come back every summer. I immediately thought he was crazy! Annual Conference, for me, can be a life-giving endeavor while at the same time a constant reminder of the brokenness of our church. But he wasn’t crazy. He was faithful.

I saw in his eyes a sincerity about the value of conferencing so I asked him to explain what it meant to him. He said, “Going to church every week has done a lot to help me grow in faith, but being around the same people all the time just kind of felt boring. But when I come here, I encounter thousands of Methodist from all over Michigan who have given their lives to Jesus, I sing with the faithful remnant and our voices echo like the angels in heaven, I discover that I am part of something so much bigger than myself.”

I was stunned. While I felt apathetic and cynical about Annual Conference, this young man had discovered, and grabbed hold of, what it could be.

Our conversation continued and he told me that about a year prior he started wrestling with a call to ordained ministry. How perfect – here I was a young seminarian responding to the call of God on my life and I had the opportunity to share this moment with a faithful and clearly gifted young man.

But I’ll never become a pastor.” He said.

“What are you talking about?” I nearly shouted. “In just a few minutes you have articulated a deeper faith than many Christians I know. You have all the potential in the world to be a gifted pastor. Are you worried about how much it will cost? The conference can help you out. Are you worried about how much work it will take? God will give you the strength to make it through.”

No” he sighed. “I’m gay.

I’m gay and I’m open about it. I am not ashamed of who I am and how God made me. But I also know that if I’m openly gay I can never become a pastor in the United Methodist Church.

I was speechless. This young man felt so committed to the church that he had attended Annual Conference eight years in a row, and yet he knew that same church believed there was something wrong with him. I didn’t know what to say in return. How could he be sitting with me in the midst of all this denominational stuff knowing what the denomination believed?

In reaction to my silence he continued, “When I told my family, they disowned me, told me I was wrong and that I had lost my mind. But my church… they welcomed me just as I am. My church has become my new family. But that same church says I can never become a pastor and that who I am is incompatible with Christian teaching.

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The story of Jesus with the crowds is a strange one. We hear about demons and Beelzebub and Satan and we immediately wonder what it means. But Satan does not necessarily mean a person with horns and a bifurcated tail, but the name does represent a demonic power that attempts to divide us from the Lord. Satan is anything that separates us from doing what is right, and good, and true.

The powers of Satan, demonic powers that capture our attention cause us to hurt ourselves, others, and our relationship with God.

There is the demonic power of Racism – which tells us to believe and act as if one group’s pigmentation or cultural values are superior to another.

There is the demonic power of Patriarchy – which tells us that men should dominate women.

There is the demonic power of Materialism – which tells us that the accumulation of wealth and goods will bring us everything we need to be happy.

And there is the demonic power of Homophobia – which tells us that anything outside of male-female relationships is an abomination.

Whether or not we believe that Satan is a real person acting in our midst is not as important as recognizing our captivity to powers of evil signified by Satan, powers that continue to affect our lives everyday.

Regrettably, churches are often the focal arena where these powers take hold: hostility, fear, and anger boil over between groups debating the value of human beings. Yet, through the story of Jesus with the crowds, we learn that the powers of Satan must be recognized and confronted if we are to truly experience the incredible love of God.

Jesus’s family tried to stop him. Just like a racist white mother tries to stop her daughter from going on a date with a black man. Just like a homophobic father berates his son for holding hands with another boy. Just like a liberal college student chastises his parents for being too conservative. Jesus’ family tried to stop him. Sam’s family tried to stop him too.

Living out our faith means discovering a new solidarity with ALL of God’s people; all of humanity. Jesus bids us to cry with those who are suffering and rejoice with those who feel free to live their lives as they are. Jesus asks us to look on the people around us who are different from us and love them because they are different from us.

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Whether we admit it or not, we are products of our families and culture. We might believe in the idea of equality, but we grow hesitant because we were cultured into things like racism, and homophobia, and materialism, and sexism. We were taught by the people around us, not because they were evil, but because they were caught captive to the same evil powers that are desperately seeking our allegiances.

The problem with families today is that we don’t challenge ourselves enough to be better. Jesus was not against his family, but he saw them as a challenge to the kind of community and kingdom he was preparing. Today we still face the challenge of how our families prevent us from seeing one another the way God see us: equal.

Wrestling with the powers of the world is difficult. The story of Jesus being accused of having a demon is not easy to handle. Learning about a young man who loves the church in spite of it’s declaration about his identity is sad.

But they also remind us of the great possibilities for hope, love, and recreation in God’s kingdom. They help us to see the moments where we can become better, opportunities for us to dig deeper in our faith, and occasions to say “Yes” to the wonder of God’s kingdom while saying “No” to the backwards values of the past.

Jesus Christ, Lord of lords and King of kings, came into the world to turn it upside down, to show us the way the truth and the life, and to create a new family where ALL are welcome. And all means ALL. Amen.

no-homophobia

Devotional – Mark 1.28

Devotional:

Mark 1.28

At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Weekly Devotional Image

In a place the size of Staunton, you quickly begin to recognize people all over town. It only took six months for trips to the grocery store to extend in length because there was a good chance I would run into someone that I knew and a conversation would naturally develop. Moreover, when your vocation includes serving the general public, people begin to talk about you with friends and family outside the context of church.

For instance: There was the time I was playing drums in a band concert at Gypsy Hill park when a stranger introduced himself and asked if I was “the strange pastor who carried a giant cross around Staunton.” Or there was the time that I was helping out at another United Methodist Church when a stranger introduced herself and asked if I was “the young pastor who made the youth do all sorts of strange things during worship” (and promptly walked away as soon as I confirmed her suspicions!). Or there are the numerous times when I am somewhere in town and a random person will say: “Oh, I’ve heard all about you and the things you’re doing at St. John’s” and I can never tell whether or not that is a good thing.

Gossip

Frankly, you don’t have to be in a place like Staunton for words and gossip to spread around like wild-fire; people thrive on receiving and sharing information that excites and dramatizes individuals in the local community. Many of us are guilty of perpetuating this cycle whenever we begin a conversation with: “Did you hear about ______?” or “Can you believe what ________ did?” Sometimes we sadly choose to focus on the dramatic successes and misfortunes of others so that we don’t have to confront the reality of what is actually happening to us in our lives.

Before the end of Mark’s first chapter, words and stories about Jesus have begun to spread all over Galilee; He called the first disciples, He cleansed a man with an unclean spirit, He healed Peter’s mother from her fever, and He cured many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons. Jesus recognized that he would have to be publicly active in his willingness to proclaim God’s Good News through his words and actions.  He went out to find people in order to bring about God’s will on earth. Important for us to remember is the fact that Jesus did not let all the rumors prevent him for doing his ministry on earth.

Wherever you live and whatever you have done, there is a good chance that people are probably talking about you in a way that is spreading your “fame” (for better or worse) in the community. Remember this: In God’s eyes you are defined by what you do for the kingdom and not by what people say about you. Therefore, let us be people of courage who do not let the words of the World break us down, but instead firmly root our hope in faith in the one whose fame continues to spread throughout the world: Jesus Christ.

Devotional – Jeremiah 31.14

Devotional:

Jeremiah 31.14

I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty.

Weekly Devotional Image

I still feel full. More than Thanksgiving, the days following Christmas are filled with such bounty that I never stop feeling full. Family and friends gathering together require an abundance of delectable foods, an assortment of particular presents, and time for catching up with stories and laughter. The wake of Christmas leaves me reminded of how much my “cup runneth over” with a tremendous number of blessings.

Our house was recently filled with family for the holiday and it was when I was cleaning up wrapping paper and doing the dishes that I was struck with how much God has blessed us. The crumbled bits of paper and the empty plates signified, more than the actual gifts and food, how much God has provided for us. Each ripped wrapping paper and each plate conveyed the fullness that we received from one another, leaving us stuffed for days to come.

When the Israelites were exiled from their homeland, God promised that they would be returned and would rejoice. Everything would be turned upside down after a great period of suffering; young women will dance, the men shall be merry, mourning will turn into joy, and sorrow will be replaced with gladness. Even the priests will be given their fill of fatness (something I can connect with right now) while God’s people will be satisfied with God’s bounty. The time after Christmas reminds me of the great promise that God made to the people regarding their exile, and the promise God made good on when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. In Jesus the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. Similarly, we are reminded of the great gift of Christ through the gifts of family, friends, food, and gifts during the season of Christmas.

Be-Present

However, we must be careful to not let the presents overshadow the value of presence. There is a great temptation to so deeply root ourselves in the tangible and material that we neglect to value the beauty of being. The great gift God gave was not so much that he provided a fleshly human being, but instead provided a human to dwell among us, to stand by our sides, to hear our prayers, to know our weakness, and to love us in spite of it all. You could wake up on Christmas morning and open every earthly thing you’ve ever wanted and it would still pale in comparison to the gift of God humbling himself to the form of a slave to truly be Emmanuel, God with us.

As we prepare to take steps in 2015 let us remember that the gift of presence outweighs the gift of presents, let us look to the ways that Jesus came for us to learn how to be there for others, and let us be truly thankful people for all the things that make us full.

Interrupted Salvation – Sermon on Mark 5.21-43

Mark 5.21-43

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a women who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

hemorrhagingwoman 6-26-12

This Sunday marks the conclusion of our sermon series on Women of Faith. Over the last few weeks we have focused on women from the Old Testament who lived our their faith in such a way that it continues to speak to us in our faith journeys. The point has been to explore some of the great females from scripture, particularly those who are not regularly mentioned from the pulpit. We began by looking at Rahab the harlot before the fall of Jericho and talked about how our pasts do not define our lives. Last week we looked at Deborah and Jael from Judges and talked about how women are powerful and being faithful is complicated. Today we conclude by looking at the unnamed hemorrhaging woman from Mark 5. So, here we are, may God bless out time together as we look at one more woman with profound faith.

The loneliness is getting unbearable. She lives in Staunton, has a full time job, while also maintaining the aspects of home life. Her husband largely ignores her, never asks about her day, and expects dinner and the laundry to have been taken care of by the time he gets home. The children are involved in such a high number of activities throughout town that she can barely keep track of who is supposed to be where and when. Though she won’t admit it to anyone, her life feels empty, as if its being drained from her slowly and decisively.

Twice a day she finds herself driving up and down Augusta street and whenever she passes St. John’s she struggles to keep her eyes glued ahead. She has admired the witty marquee in the past, and she feels something drawing her to the building, but church is the last thing she wants in her life.

For months this goes on, and every time she passes she catches herself glancing more and more at our building. She sees the children during preschool walking on the front lawn looking for insects and leaves for projects, she observes the Christmas tree sales with families giggling as they explore the various options, she witnesses a number of older adults laughing manically as they fall down the 18 ft. inflatable slide during the Community Cook-Out. On certain Sundays she finds herself getting in the car and driving to the parking lot but she never leaves the vehicle; she can’t explain why she’s here and she’s too afraid to come inside.

One morning, when the emptiness and loneliness has become so frighteningly palpable she drives to St. John’s on a typical Sunday and bravely makes her way from the car to the sanctuary. She hopes against hope that something incredible can happen here.

But we’re in the middle of something else, worship has already started and I’m up here in the pulpit going on and on about the grace of God, or the service has yet to start but most of us are greeting our friends and asking them about their weekends, or worship is already over but most of us are solidifying plans for lunch. We might not even notice the woman who risked it all to be here with us.

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Jesus was beckoned by Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, to come and heal his daughter. “Please Lord. My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” So Jesus, doing his Jesus thing, went with Jairus to heal his daughter. Like worship on a Sunday morning, Jesus going to heal someone is typical and part of his routine. He is prepared to meet the young girl and heal her as he has done so many times before.

However, on the way to Jairus’ house a strange thing happens. A woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, who had been isolated from her family and community, sees the Messiah that she had heard so much about. Building up her courage she stepped forward, reached out her hand and touched his clothes, hoping that it would cure her. And immediately she felt in her body that she had been healed. But Jesus will not leave it at that; feeling the power go out from him he turns to the crowd and demands to know who touched his clothes. With fear and trembling the woman stepped forward and told Christ the whole truth, and he responded by saying “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

healing-of-the-woman-thumb-300x3861

Jesus was interrupted on his journey to heal Jairus’ daughter by a hemorrhaging woman, and in so doing the young girl died at home. He took too much time with the other woman’s problems, and now an innocent girl has passed away when Jesus could have done something about it.

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The woman sits in one of the pews of our church alone and afraid to speak to anyone. She has never been in a church before and so much of what we are doing is strange and bizarre to her. She is thankful for the bulletin directing her to the hymnal with tunes she has never heard, and prayers that she has never uttered. Most of it means nothing to her but she continues to worship with the hope that something will help. 

Our service ends and she follows the people around her as they file out toward the back of the sanctuary. She keeps her head low and whispers thank you as I shake her hand, I thank her for being with us today, and she walks out, perhaps never to return again. She came looking for something life-changing, hoping for something to heal her and make her well, and all she got was a strange youth message, a mediocre sermon, and more loneliness.

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When Jesus arrived at Jairus’ house, even with the young girl dead, Jesus comforts the father, “Do not fear, only believe. Your daughter is not dead but sleeping.” And the people in the house laughed at him, but he put them all outside and took Jairus and the child’s mother and went to the girl. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Little girl, get up!” and she immediately got up and began to walk around, hungry for something to eat.

Jesus allowed the interruption in the street by the unnamed woman knowing that he would be able to still make it to Jairus’ house and bring about the healing and salvation that was needed. He might have been content with merely allowing her to touch his clothing and be healed but he took the extra time for personal touch and contact.

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When the woman comes to St. John’s we could happy with letting her experience worship on her own, free to return to the life of loneliness and emptiness, but if we are to act like Christ we have to go one step farther. The terrible disease of loneliness is something that we have the power to fight against, we just have to be open to interrupted salvation.

Mark 5 is an incredible reminder for all of us, for the teachers who are so often interrupted by students, parents harried by the demands of their children, and even preachers that are stopped while working on a sermon, that interruptions are important. Someone once said, “You know… my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.

I was having lunch on Thursday with a clergy friend, talking about the ways that we are trying to serve our churches, when a man casually mentioned something about his cancer and we invited him to join us for lunch. He interrupted our conversation to share with us his struggles and fears. I was preparing for worship two weeks ago, running around the building just trying to make sure that everything would be ready, when Steve Wisely scared me half to death. He interrupted me in the midst of my work to tell me that his father, Russ, was dying. Every Sunday I stand at the back of the church, thanking all of you for being with us in worship when I am often dealt a hard and frightening truth about someone’s struggles, I am interrupted while doing my job with a difficult diagnosis, a struggling marriage, or a lonely woman.

What do we do with our interruptions? When the stranger arrives at church, sitting alone in the pew near us while we are in the middle of a conversation, how do we respond? Are we content with introducing ourselves, shaking hands, and then going back to our routine, or do we act like Christ and take the extra step to offer them not only a smile, but wholeness? When your child struggles with a decision in their life, do you offer a few bits of wisdom, or do you drop what you are doing to demonstrate that you deeply love them? Do you see interruptions as interruptions, or do you see them as opportunities for salvation?

That woman with the hemorrhage has more faith than I’ll ever have. She, in the deep recesses of fear and disappointment, reached out to the Lord with the hope of receiving something so improbable, that we would mock it today. Her faith is so real and palpable because she lived it out, she took those frightening steps to the Lord and believed that he could do something incredible with, through, and for her.

That unnamed woman who arrives at our church and sits in her car unsure of whether to enter has more faith than I’ll ever have. Though deeply rooted in the fear of her own loneliness and emptiness, she bravely enters the church with the hope that the Lord, with the people inside, can do something so improbable that we often ignore it. Her faith is so real and palpable because she lives it out, she takes those humbling steps to the sanctuary and believes that the God of Christ can do something incredible through us for her.

Showing up to church is wonderful. When it becomes part of the routine of life it begins to habituate us toward a new understanding of discipleship where we can truly act as Christians without having to overthink what we are doing.

But believing that God can actually do something for you, that the church can bring about a sense of salvation in your life is what faith is really all about. 

The woman walks out the main doors and makes her way toward the parking lot. Frustrated by her foolishness in believing that the church could actually change anything about her circumstances she is surprised when she hears a person hurrying up behind her. Someone from St. John’s, one of you, tries to catch up with her to apologize for not introducing yourself earlier. You tell her that you saw her sitting by herself and you felt God pushing you to do something more and you ask if she would like to get a cup of coffee sometime this week, just so that you can get to know her better. “I would love that” she says with a shy smile.

The final few steps to her car are filled with the brightness of hope, something she has not experienced for a long time. Still smiling from the invitation she hears a soft voice, as light as the wind, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.

Amen.