The Death Of The Party

Luke 15.1-3, 11b

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons…”

There was a man that had two sons.

The family business had been good to the family. The little grocery store had been passed down generation after generation. It was a staple in the community and the family knew the names of nearly every customer that walked through the doors. 

The father had been good to his sons as much as any father can. And one day the younger son walked into the shop and back into the office to find his father going over the inventory.

“Dad,” he said, “I want my share of the property right now.”

In other words, “Drop dead.”

The father responds by dividing the assets between his sons. To the elder he gives the property and the responsibility of the family business, and to the younger he cashes in on some investments to give him his half in cash.

Only a few days pass before the younger son has blown all of the money in Atlantic City. At first he was careful with his bets at the roulette wheel, but the more he lost the more he spent, on booze, and girls, and more gambling.

His fall from grace happened so fast that before he left the casino he was begging the owner for some work. 

“Sure,” the owner said, “We’ve got a new opening in our janitorial services and you can start right away.”

Within hours he had gone from being the wealthiest individuals in  he casino, to picking up the trash from the now wealthiest people in the casino.

And with every passing day, and every emptied trash bag, he contemplates pulling the scraps of food from the bottom just to provide some sort of sustenance. He had taken to sleeping outside behind the casino in a place where no one would find him, and he would wash his uniform every morning in the sink of one of the public restrooms. 

And finally he came to himself.

He realized that even his father’s employees back at the grocery store had food to eat and roofs over their heads. 

In the midst of accepting the condition of his condition he starts working on his confession. “Dad, I really messed up. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Please just give me a job at the store.” 

So he packs up the little that he has, and leaves the casino without even picking up his paycheck.

And how does the father respond when this prodigal returns home?

He’s sitting by the window, listening to his older son now barking out orders to everyone in the shop before retiring to the back office, and then the father catches a glimpse of his youngest boy walking down the street. And he reacts in what would seem an unexpected way: he bolts out the door, tackles him into the street, and starts kissing him all over his matted hair.

“Dad,” the boy whispers under the tidal wave of love, “I’ve really messed up, and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”

“Shut up,” says the father, “We’re gonna close the shop for the rest of the day and throw a party.” 

He grabs the boy by the collar, picks him up, and starts barking orders to everyone in the store to get everything ready. “Hey Joe, pull out the beer.” “Murph, would you mind locking the front door?” “George, do me a favor, find the nicest rack of lamb we’ve got and start roasting it on the grill out back.” “It’s time to party, for this son of mine was dead and is alive again, he was lost and is found.”

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And the beer caps start flying, the the radio in the corner get turned up to full blast, and everyone starts partying in the middle of the afternoon.

Meanwhile, the older son is sitting in the back office pouring over the time sheets, making sure that none of his employees are trying to swindle him out of some money, and he hears the commotion on the over side of the store. He catches a glimpse of George with beer foam stuck in his mustache running out the back door with what looks like a leg of lamb, and he shouts, “What in the hell is going on?”

George skids to a halt in the hallway, and declares, “It’s your brother, he’s home, and your father told us to party.” And with that he runs out the back door to get the grill going.

The older brother feels his fists tightening and he retreats back into his office and he slams the door.

And with every passing minute, and as his rage increases, the party just gets louder on the other side of the door. The older brother tries to distract himself with the work before him, but he eventually gives into his feelings and throws the ledger across the office and puts a hole in the wall.

And that’s when he hears a knock at the door. 

His dad steps across the threshold, clearly in the early stages of inebriation. He mumbles something like, “What’re you doing back here? You’re missing the party.”

But the older son is incredulous. “What do you mean ‘what am I doing back here?’ I’m doing my job. Look, I’ve been working live a slave for you for years, and I have never missed a day of work. And yet, you’ve never thrown a party for me, you’ve never told me I could go home early. But this prodigal son of yours returns home, having wasted all of your money with gambling and prostitutes, and you’re roasting him a leg of lamb!”

And the father sobers up for a moment while listening to his son lamenting his present circumstances. And maybe its the beer, or maybe it’s just his own frustration that causes him to shout back in return, “You idiot! I gave you all of this. You haven’t been working for me, you’ve been working for yourself. The last I checked you were the one in charge around here.”

The older son stands speechless. In all his years he had never heard his father speak so freely.

And the old man continues, “Remember when your brother told me to give him his inheritance, well I gave you this. And what does your life have to show for all of it? You’re so consumed by the rules, and doing what you think you’re supposed to do, and you’re clinging to something that isn’t real.”

“But Dad…”

“Don’t you ‘But Dad’ me right now. Listen! All that matters is that your brother is finally alive again. And look at yourself – you’re hardly alive at all. Listen to the party that’s bumping in the other room. We’re all dead and having a great time. You, you’re alive and miserable. Keep complaining all you want, but don’t forget that you’re the one who owns this place.”

The father turns to go rejoin the party, but before he crosses the threshold he turns back to look at his older son and says, “The only reason you’re not already out there having a good time with the rest of us is because you refuse to be dead to all of your dumb rules about how you’re life is supposed to be enjoyed. So do yourself a favor, son of mine, and die already. Forget about all your stupid rules and just come and have a drink with us.”

This has to be the most well known story that Jesus tells in the gospels. And, strangely enough, the whole thing is about death. The first death takes place right at the very beginning. The father is asked to effectively commit vocational suicide to give his sons their inheritance prior to his biological death. The second death happens when the prodigal wakes up dead, or rather dead to the life that he once had back home. Reduced to the shame of working for nothing he comes to himself and realizes that whatever life he thought he had is gone forever.

So he returns home to a moment of profound judgment and grace. It is a bizarre reunion, and the son realizes that he really is dead, and that if he is going to have any new life at all it will be through his father who willingly died for his behalf.

Notice, the confession on his lips, the one he planned for, follows forgiveness. Only after being tackled to the ground by his father does he come into contact with the completely unmerited gift of someone who died, in advance, to forgive him.

Confession, at least according to Jesus, is not something we do to earn forgiveness. The best we can ever do is open our eyes to what we already have and then respond with our confession. 

In the church we talk about forgiveness all the time and we do so without recognizing the true weight of our forgiveness. We say things like, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” and it’s true. We are forgiven not only for the sins committed before the confession, but also for a who life of sins yet to come. And this is only possible for one reason: Jesus died for us.

Which leads us to the third death – the fatted calf (or the lamb in my version). This is Jesus Christ himself in his own story. What does a fatted calf do? It sits around waiting to drop dead at a moment’s notice in order that people can have a party. I don’t mean to sound so crass, but this is what Jesus is saying. 

This whole story, the beloved tale of the prodigal son, isn’t about our religious observances, or our spiritual proclivities, or even our bumbling moral claims. It’s about God having a good time and just dying, literally, to share it with us.

But, lest we forget about the older brother, he shows up in the story to show the Father how foolish he is. When in fact, the greatest fool of all is the one who stayed home. He’s the fool because he refuses to die – not literally, but to his crazy sensibilities about the world and about his work. 

He is so convinced, too convinced, that doing all of the right things will be enough to save him. His refrain is “I did everything I was supposed to. I stayed home. I took care of my responsibilities. I planned accordingly. I was perfect.” And yet his life is anything but perfect. And he cannot stand the idea of his father throwing a party for his brother who deserves nothing.

But we all deserve nothing. 

Grace is a crazy thing. Jesus tells this story and whenever we hear it we are quick to read ourselves into the story. We can think of times when we’ve been the prodigal, and we made bad choices. We can think of times when we’ve been the Father, waiting to receive the one asking for our forgiveness. We can even think of times when we’ve been the older son and we’re just so angry that someone else gets something for nothing.

But this story is really about the party and the craziness of grace. The party is already happening. Jesus has already marched to the top of Calvary. We were dead, but now we’re alive. We were lost but then God found us. 

And the best part is none of us deserve it. Amen.

 

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Flashing Forth Flames of Fire

Psalm 29

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor. The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, “Glory!” The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace!

Imagine, if you can, that I was a middle student and I came to your office one day and asked you to explain the Trinity. What would you say?

I was sitting at a table surrounded by pastors and lay people from the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and they were evaluating whether or not I had been effective in my first three years of ministry. This was one of the last requirements to be fully ordained, and get to wear a stole like this one.

So I was sitting there at the table having already fielded an hour’s worth of theological questions when I was asked to explain the nature of the Trinity to a hypothetical middle schooler.

What would you say?

The three most popular analogies for the Trinity are as follows:

The Trinity is like an egg. At one moment it is three distinct things – a shell, a yolk, and an egg white. Without all three it ceases to be an egg. However this fails to justice to the Trinity because it cannot be divided into parts, but the egg can.

Another analogy is that the Trinity is like water. Water, depending on external temperature, can be a gas, a liquid, or a solid. And regardless of what state it is in, the chemical composition remains the same. However, this too fails to do justice to the Trinity because water can change into gas, or vice versa, but the Father does not become the Son or the Spirit.

Finally, there’s the analogy of the shamrock. St. Patrick was once said to have picked up a shamrock and say, just as there are three leaves, but there is one plant – so it is with the Trinity. However, this falls apart with the fact that the shamrocks have different parts and that is not true for the Trinity.

Pretend I’m a middle schooler and I wanted to know about the Trinity. What would you say?

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Today is Trinity Sunday. It always falls on the Sunday immediately following Pentecost and it is a time for us to confront our three-in-one God. It continues us throughout the period we call Ordinary Time until Advent. Many churches use this day as a teaching moment to help illuminate church doctrine about what it means to be Trinitarian. They might break out some water, or eggs, or shamrocks and do what they can to help all in attendance to understand what we believe just a little bit better.

            But here’s the thing – For as much as our God is a present and revealing God, our God is also incomprehensibly and uncontainably complex.

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings! The voice of the Lord thunders, it breaks the cedars, the Lord shakes the wilderness, the Lord flashes forth like flames of fire!

The psalmist conveys to us images of the divine that have far more to do with destruction and devastation than with eggs, water, and shamrocks. Here we discover a God who causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare, such that all the people in God’s temple say, “Glory!”

Most of us have come of age in a world where the God of scripture has been conveyed to us through analogy after analogy, where professional Christians like me have endeavored to bring people like you closer to the divine, when the truth of the matter is that we cannot describe God, and God is the One who encounters us.

Our God cannot be contained by metaphors and analogies for middle school students – our God is as overwhelming as a windstorm leaving a forest bare, as frightening as a voice that can shake the wilderness, and as bewildering as flames of fire flashing forth.

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The church, the Bible, the Trinity, they are all confusing, and we can blame it on God. God reveals God’s self in ways we cannot imagine or rationalize, and choose to be God for us as Father, Son, and Spirit in such a way that it is beyond our ability to comprehend or describe.

And so, with all this confounding confusion, what can we say about our God?

Perhaps, we can say that God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead having first raised Israel out of Egypt. We can say this because God chose to reveal God’s self to us in the person and incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth. And Jesus, like God, is anything but simple.

In Jesus, God got physical, explicit, and peculiar. God came close to us, too close for comfort for many. Jesus is God in action. Jesus is God refusing to remain an abstract idea removed to a far off place. Jesus is God breaking forth from the shackles of God’s own divinity.

But, lest we fall into a day-dream version of God in Jesus through the lens of sentimentality… God is still the God of the psalm flashing forth flames of fire.

I once heard that God is at least as nice as Jesus, but the same holds true that Jesus is at least as frightening as God.

            And then we’re left with another question: Who is God’s peace for?

After describing the destructive power of the Lord, the psalm ends with a call for God to give strength to God’s people and for them to be blessed with peace. What about those who are not part of God’s people? What does this peace actually look like? Does God take sides?

The answers to those questions are as confusing an as ambiguous as the Trinity itself.

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The Lord blesses the sons and daughters of Abraham but they live in a time of famine.

            They are rescued by Joseph only to become slave in Egypt.

            Led by Moses they escape bondage to wander in the wilderness for forty years.

            Joshua delivers them to the Promised Land but they are never really at peace.

            There are wars after wars and the so-called “chosen people” lose just as often as they win. They are taken into exile, or forced to wait for loved ones to return home. And when they are reconciled, if ever, peace is the last thing on their minds.

We can read these stories over and over again in the Old Testament, we can encounter those elected and rejected by God, but we don’t have to look far to know that it is true – we war among ourselves all the time; father against son, mother against daughter, brother against brother, sister against sister. And then we still ask, “Are we going to encounter the God of earthquakes, flames of fire, and whirling winds – Is God on our side?” Or, perhaps better put, “When will the Lord finally bless us with peace?”

Psalm 29, the doctrine of the Trinity, they both raise more questions than they provide answers. People like you and me have been struggling with these words and ideas for centuries, we’ve been tugged between the tension and ambiguity of God’s nature in the world and in our very lives.

We worship a God who blesses, but we live in a world where bad things happen to good people nonetheless. There is no easy and satisfying answer to the question of whether or not God takes sides, just as there is no easy and simple analogy for the Trinity.

We may never be able to avoid the confusing nature of faith completely. So much of what we do is based on a premise of mystery – we just happen to live in a world hell-bent on having an answer for everything.

If all this talk of trinitarianism and God’s frightening power seems a bit overwhelming, you are not alone. There are plenty of churches and communities that make this easier on the brain with simple analogies and ignorant assumptions. But there is no way for us to do justice to the marvelous complexity, the community in unity of the divine, without believing in the three-in-one God. We cannot worship God in faith without struggling and wrestling with the question of God’s preferences.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement struggled with his knowledge of God. He read all the right books and went to the right school, and even became a priest in the Church of England without believing in the faith he preached. He struggled and struggled to the point that when he asked one of his mentors what to do about leading a church without faith his mentor said, “preach until you get it.”

And it was 280 years ago this week that John Wesley wrote something rather remarkable in his diary: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society on Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God work in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

Wesley had spent most of his life looking for God, when in the end God was the one who found him and warmed his heart. That moment changed everything, that society meeting on Aldersgate is largely responsible for the existence of the United Methodist Church today.

God comes to us, all of us, at any time and at any place, as Father-Son-Spirit. For some God flashes forth like flames of fire, and for others God’s flame is found in the warmth of our hearts. God finds us and, contrary to what we might want, God doesn’t answer all of our questions. Yet when God encounters we discover an assurance that this God is with us.

When the far-off One who has been brought near is us, when the wall that has been destroyed is the wall we build in a vain attempt to keep God out of our lives and off our backs, that’s when we start to know the Trinity.

Faith, however, will always remain a mystery. We will find ourselves confused by the God who finds us. Because, in the end, it may simply be too frightening to think about God’s peace, whatever that is. It might be too overwhelming to think that God is not on our side, or worse: God might be on their side.

So on this Trinity Sunday, as we leave scratching our heads, we do so with the hope that God will bless us with true peace – not as we know peace or wish to know peace; a peace that is always defined on our terms. No, this Trinity Sunday, we pray for the peace, the perfect peace, that is known and shared within the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit.

            And, we may be so bold so pray, that God might warm our hearts in the process. Amen.

The Problem With Kids Today – Sermon on John 10.11-18

John 10.11-18

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

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Happy Preschool Sunday! This morning we conclude our sermon series on our stained glass. These sermons were born out of a desire to recapture the importance of our windows and how the continue to speak into our lives. We began with The Methodists to my right: Susanna Wesley, John Wesley, and Francis Asbury. Last week we looked at The Johns: John the Evangelist, John the Presbyter, and John on Patmos. We now finish with the window behind me above the altar: Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

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Why St. John’s?” I asked. We were sitting in the living room and going over our respective histories when I finally turned to one of my favorite questions: “Why St. John’s?” With the overwhelming abundance of churches in our community what made you choose this one?

Her answer was familiar and sounded similar to the other responses I had heard: It was where all our friends were going; it was the closest church to our neighborhood; it just made sense; it was a place our kids felt welcome. But then her answer took on a life of it’s own in a way I didn’t expect.

“But we haven’t always been here,” she said. “There was a time that we no longer wanted to come to St. John’s.” Of course my curiosity was caught and I wanted to know all the details behind their departure, but as if she was reading my mind she continued, “The ‘why’ is not important. What is important is how we came back.

“We were invited back for a particular Sunday, and though it hurt me to enter the doors of the sanctuary, I reluctantly sat down in one of the back pews. Before I knew it my mind was  flooded with all of the friendships that we cultivated in the sanctuary, all the children I had vowed to raise in the faith during their baptisms, all of the good sermons and all of the bad. But at the same time my mind was flooded with all the old arguments, the disagreements, and the frustrations.”

“But then something happened. I looked up and I saw the Good Shepherd window and everything felt right. It was like all of my worry started to slowly dissipate, and I knew that I had to come back. This was my home, because this is where I discover how the Good Shepherd watches over me.”

People and situations had driven her away. The old arguments were enough for her to leave the church behind. But miraculously enough it wasn’t people that brought her back, there were no justifications or rationalizations that would have changed her opinion. It was this window. It was Jesus as the Good Shepherd that brought her back, and it is the Good Shepherd who watches over all of us.

More often than not, the Good Shepherd stained glass window is the first thing that people notice when they enter our sanctuary. Its colors and vibrancy draw our attention and captivate us even when the sermons make us want to sleep.

It shows Jesus at his finest: leading, nurturing, and loving. The sheep are at peace knowing their shepherd is there to guide them through life. Even the abundance of blue helps to convey the deep sense of calm that comes with Jesus’s presence.

Whenever our eyes fall upon this window we are called to remember how much the Good Shepherd loves us. It shows how comforting it is to know that the Lord will hold us, and protect us, when necessary. The window exemplifies the power of the one who gave all that he had for his friends and for strangers.

Yet, even for as much as this window conveys the faith, it also muddies the waters. During the time of Jesus’ life the role of a shepherd was anything but picturesque. Shepherds were often the outcasts of society and were ignored by the masses. Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd” would have bewildered the religious elite and the powerful. It had a certain edge to it.

This week I gathered all of our preschoolers into the choir loft to teach them about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Like we all do, they noticed how beautiful Jesus looks in the image and how he cares for the sheep. “The sheep is like a baby” one of the kids yelled out. I remember thinking: “Yes yes, thats all good and true, but there is so much more to what it means to shepherd.”

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When describing himself as the good shepherd Jesus uses the hired hand as a comparison. The hired hand is someone who is only concerned with monetary gains, expends the minimum amount of work necessary, and will not risk life or limb for the sake of others. The hired hand is like the person who is so selfish that they ignore the needs of others.

Jesus, however, lays down his life for the sheep and promises to never let them, us, go. His voice will always draw us back because we belong to him. 

I love our preschoolers and this time of the year is always bittersweet for me. We are preparing for the end of year program, and our eldest class will be heading off to kindergarten in the fall. I spend enough time with them in the basement that I know the ins and outs of their little personalities, I know who to separate during chapel time for optimal focus, I know what jokes they will laugh at, and I know what to do and what to say to stop them from crying. I love them and I believe that I would be willing to lay my life down for them. I would do whatever it takes to protect them because each of them is a child of God.

But then I wonder if I would do the same thing for the adults in my life… I mean I love all of you too, but there’s just something about the desire to protect children that makes us stronger and braver than we normally are. For some reasons we value them as being more important than those who are older, and we prioritize their needs over others. We would do things for children that we would never do for others.

The problem with kids today, is that they are better than us.

After we looked at the window this week, I brought the preschoolers outside to demonstrate what it means to be a shepherd. I gathered a group in the middle of the yard, and I pulled four kids out to be the shepherds. I explained that I would be a wolf trying to get at the sheep in the middle, and the shepherds had to do whatever they could to protect the sheep.

It worked brilliantly. Every time I rushed forward the shepherds converged on me and pushed me back, and when I tried to run around and juke them they rearranged and protected their friends; no matter what I did, the little shepherds were going to do whatever they could to protect the sheep.

But that’s when I noticed something remarkable: The group of sheep in the middle had been holding hands the entire time. Now let me be clear, I did not instruct them to hold hands or to watch out for each other, but they did it on their own. Even more remarkable is the fact that the older kids placed the younger ones in the middle to protect them even more while they held hands. It was easily one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

The problem with kids today, is that they are better than us.

In our little preschool rooms, and in our community, kids are the ones who are acting more like Jesus than the adults. While we complain and groan about those who are different than us, people who do not look, think, and talk like us, kids are going out to meet them where they are. Jesus sought out the lost, the ones who needed to be rescued, the ones who are forgotten in our society. In our preschool rooms the children do whatever they can to involve everyone and show them they are loved.

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If you want to know what Jesus was really like, spend just 5 minutes with one of our preschoolers. During snack time they are willing to give up their food for the person who mentions they are still hungry. When they are playing with different objects in different stations they will include everyone in the activity no matter what. When they work on art projects they pay one another the nicest compliments regardless of how well the finger painting actually turns out. And when we were outside this week, the shepherds took care of the sheep while the sheep took care of one another.

The problem with kids today, is that they are better than us. 

We should start looking to them more often about what it means to be faithful, than expecting them to learn everything from us.

We all hunger to know and be known. Many of us (adults) create virtual communities on the internet because forming real and authentic connections is hard work. It requires face to face intimacy, a willingness to listen, and vulnerability all at the same time in a way that a phone and computer screen can never allow. Kids don’t have the benefit of social networking to create friendships, they have to do it the old fashioned way, and they’re better at it than we are.

God’s community is open and inclusive. Jesus not only cares for the sheep but gathers them into the flock. Those who are curious about what it means to be a disciple are invited into Jesus’ community no matter what: the door is always wide open to the outcasts: You know, the people whose lives are messy, whose families are not the perfect “husband-wife-2.5-children” scenario, who live in fear between paychecks, and who wonder if anyone knows how they really feel.

Today Jesus is still welcoming and inviting people who are often excluded based on the standards of our time. Kids don’t have the benefit of immediately recognizing someone’s socio-economic status, they aren’t concerned with where their parents went to college or even if they didn’t, they aren’t worried about the color of their skin or the shape of their bodies: they just want to love and be loved. 

So how can we create an authentic and life-giving community? We begin by following the example of our kids…

Imagine, if you can, what it would look like if we stopped excluding people based on our warped standards: wealth, status, race, sexual orientation, and physical condition. What if we started treating people with respects regardless of who they were and what they had done? What do you think would happen if we really started to take care of one another without judgment or expectation of reciprocation?

It wouldn’t be easy, but it would be more like the kingdom than the way we are living right now. Amen.

What Is Love? (Jesus Don’t Hurt Me) – Sermon on 1 John 3.16-24

1 John 3.16-24

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater that our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

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1 John is a letter written by a wise, old, veteran Christian leader who continues to help those who are new and young to the faith by addressing the challenges of discipleship. What we have read this morning encompasses John’s understanding of love, Christ’s love, and the need for Christians to find this same love in their lives. Now, to be clear, I am not like John. I am not a mature Christian leader, with years of experience to rely upon. I cannot pull from the wisdom of leading churches throughout the decades to help those who are struggling. I am not like John. In fact, I’m the kind of person that John wrote this letter to in the first place.

Yet, knowing I am not qualified, I decided to write my own letter this week as if I were John to our contemporary church…

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Dear St. John’s,

What is love? Do you ever find yourself asking that very question? Love seems to be one of those things, those words, that we tend to just throw around without really thinking about what it means. I love your outfit! I love what you’ve done with the place! I love eating frozen Kit Kats! I love you!

Love, as a word, has the power to mean everything and nothing. For instance: when we start dating and we grow closer and closer to someone else and they say for the first time: “I love you” it can mean everything in the world. Time can slow down and we can remember the way we felt when we heard it for the first time. However, years later, “love” can become routine, that word we use to end conversations rather than to declare how we feel in our heart of hearts. Love becomes a filler rather than a feeling.

What is love? Is it something that we can only experience in a romantic way? Can we love our friends and family? Can we love our church? Can we love the Lord?

This is how we know what love is: that Jesus laid down his life for us – and we ought to do the same for one another. Now, stay with me if you can, I know that as you read this letter you might already start to grow weary of this thing called love. How willing are we to really lay down our lives for other people? Frankly, most of us will never have to come that far, we will never be martyred for our faith. For as much as we talk about lifting up our cross to follow Christ, it is unlikely that we will ever find ourselves hanging on that cross for what we believe.

Yet, as Christians, this is how we know what love looks like. That a man, fully God and fully human, delivered himself to die for us even when we did not deserve it.

St. John’s, how can the Lord’s love abide in us when we are filled with the world’s goods, but we refuse to help our brothers and sisters in need? Is it possible to love without sacrifice?

Most of us want to love and be loved so long as it doesn’t hurt. We want to know all about love, and we are ready to follow the Lord’s commands so long as it won’t cost us anything.

Love is never really love unless it has the power to harm us.

Discipleship is never holy unless we are willing to sacrifice and be deeply honest with ourselves and others. Trust is never fully possible until we know what’s its like to have our trust broken. Love is what it is because it can both build us up and tear us down.

We might never have to die for somebody else like Jesus did for us, but to love others implies a willingness to lay down our needs and desires for someone else’s needs and desires. What is love if not a willingness to be vulnerable with another?

So, if we want to love, let us do so not with words or speeches, but in truth and action. Anybody can say “I love you”; it is far harder for our lives to match our words. Do we practice what we preach? Are our feet and tongues in alignment? Do our actions match our professions?

Love is hard. It requires dedication and commitment, vulnerability and sacrifice, honesty and attention. We would rather love with our words because we do not have the strength to love with our actions. This is why we pray; We pray for the Lord to give us the strength to love the unlovable because we cannot do it on our own.

Have you ever noticed the covenants made at a wedding? The couple consents and promises to love one another in the sight of God and witnesses, but then the entire congregation makes a promise to nurture that couple in love. Romantic love and a promise between two people is not enough to sustain a life-long marriage. We need others to hold us accountable to the promises of love, and in particular to the love between partners.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes, in fact many times, the Lord does not answer our prayers? Or at least not the way we would want to the Lord to answer them? We know that the Lord is greater than our fickle hearts and that he answers our prayers, but sometimes we ask for the wrong things.

How often do we pray for the Lord to fix this or that, to make our children better, to rid us of our sickness when we could be praying for the Lord to give us the strength to address our own problems, the courage to be honest with our kids, and the endurance to bear the pain?

The Lord is greater than all of our selfish desires and trite fixations. The Lord’s love knows no bounds and continues to seek us out even when we turn away. This is the truth of the Good News, that God’s love remains steadfast even as ours falters. We will never be able to love others in the exact same way that God does, but our challenges is to strive for it nonetheless.

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St. John’s, our church needs some encouragement so despair will not take root. We need to love and feel loved. We need to lift one another up with this sacrificial love so that we might know and experience God’s love right now through each other.

If we fail in our own eyes, if we feel that we have been a disappointment, be assured that God knows our hearts better than we do. We might look in the mirror every morning and see regrets, failures, and short-comings, but the Lord sees hope, beauty, and wonder. We might replay in our minds the hateful words that have been shouted at us by our bosses, friends, and spouses, but the Lord wants us to hear only one thing: you are loved.

Do we know that we are loved? Do we feel it in our lives on a regular basis? Do we experience a feeling of worth from the Lord through others?

The Lord has given us a worthy commandment: we should believe in the power of his Son Jesus Christ, and we should love one another. 

I asked the children of our preschool about love and they were able to describe it in a way that many of us forget by the time we grow up. They want to love because it makes them happy, they feel love through hugs and snuggles and time well spent. Yet, when I asked one particular boy if he feels loved, this is what he said: “I feel loved by my mommy and daddy whenever they hug me and sit with me. But I don’t know why they love me.

It is so sad that we believe love can only exist when it is deserved or warranted. We live in such a commodified society, that we expect that love only accompanies good behavior.

God’s love is unconditional, and ours should be to.

You might not know it, or even believe it, but I have seen this love made real and tangible through the people in our pews.

When we learned about the needs of a community in West Virginia, men from our church volunteered to shave their faces just so we could raise money for the mission trip. They literally put their faces on the line for God’s kingdom. At the same time, everyone that contributed financially sacrificed from their lives so that we might bless and love on others in need. We responded in love not because of what people deserve, but simply as a reaction to need.

When we learn about someone’s recent diagnosis or loss of a loved one, we gather together to nurture them and surround them with care. We write cards and offer prayers, we drive to homes and cemeteries, we sit and we listen. We respond in love not because they once did the same for us and we believe that we owe it to them, but we do so because living by loving is the only way that makes sense as Christians.

If love is real, there is no “why?”

What is love? God is. We love others because God loves us. God was willing to humble himself to the form of flesh, to know what we know and feel. God was willing to walk among the people and listen to their needs and hopes, to lift them up and offer them worth. God was willing to carry death on his back and hang there for all to see. God was willing to die for you and the world. God was willing to love us, and continues to through every moment of our lives.

Do you know that you are loved? Whenever you look at a cross, remember that Jesus died on one for you. Whenever you look at a loaf of bread, remember that Christ’s body was given so that you could live. Whenever you look at another person, remember that Christ died for them just as much as he died for you. 

When we love we abide in the Lord and he abides in us. Loving others is the closest we can ever get to really being Christ’s body for the world. When we love with our actions we allow the Holy Spirit to live and move through us. Whether we love with a hug or a letter, a smile or a sacrifice, a commitment or a vow, we are abiding in the Lord.

St. John’s, loving is the greatest thing in the world, but it can also be the hardest. Love can build us up and break us down. Love can inspire majesty and travesty. Love can bring us closer to God and drive us away.

Love is hard, but if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be worth it. Amen.

How Did You Two Meet? – Pentecost Sermon on Acts 2.1-13

Acts 2.1-13

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pntus and Asia, Phyrgia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs – in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Acts 2:1-4. When the day of Pentecost came. Pastel & pen. 26 May 2012.

I had spent an entire week with countless young Christians from all over the world at a monastery in Burgundy, France. For most weeks during the summer, Taize attracts upwards of 5,000 young Christians dedicated to exploring their faith through prayer, service, and singing. Waking up in a tent every morning, I would trudge across the dew filled grass passing neon tents filled with 20-somethings snoring away as the sun came up over the horizon. Each little campsite held clues as to the nationality of the residents: the occasional German flag, a water bottle covered in French writing, an abandoned tee-shirt with a hispanic wrestler flexing on the front, I even saw a cricket bat one morning. As the crowds made their way to the sanctuary, it was impossible to eavesdrop or understand what anyone was talking about because no one was speaking English.

Just past the interior door to the incredibly large sanctuary, there were buckets filled with hymnals organized by language. On our first morning I was surprised to discover that there were more “English” hymnals left in the buckets than any others, because Americans were part of the minority of the gathered body.

Taize Altar

Taize Altar

We sat on the floor surrounded by other young people who were still half asleep fumbling through our hymnals before the service began. Suddenly, up at the front of the massive building, a simply lit sign displayed three numbers “312” and as if we were being controlled by a single operator we all flipped our pages to the corresponding hymn. Without any musical accompaniment, without any choral direction, the hymn began. I, of course, sang the hymn in English as the words were displayed on the page, but when I made my way to the end of the song, everyone continued singing. We were not told how many times to repeat the hymn, but it went on and on until in ended naturally at the same moment. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced. When I had finally caught on to the rhythm of our singing, I closed my eyes and began to hear all of the other voices singing faithfully in their native tongue. Without a doubt, that moment as I sat on the floor of a enormous sanctuary in France, was the closest I have ever been to experiencing the day of Pentecost in my own life.

 

The community of faith had recently witnessed Jesus’ ascension into heaven and then retreated to the upper room in Jerusalem to devote themselves to patience and prayer. For ten days they waited, as they had been told to do, waiting for something to happen. We are given very little in Acts about what they did those ten days but we do know that rather than taking matters into their own hands, instead of getting organized and venturing forth with pamphlets about “what God can do for YOU”, they waited for God to make the next move.

The day of Pentecost, what we celebrate and remember today here in church, was the first big thing to happen to the disciples after Jesus had left them. Like the start of any life or story, the beginning has major ramifications for how the rest will turn out. Just as with Jesus’ birth in the manger in Bethlehem to a virgin, so too the details surrounding the birth of the church would come to define the rest of the story for Jesus’ followers.

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As the morning broke, while the disciples were all together in one place, an eruption of sounds and a wind from heaven filled the entire house. Things were coming loose and breaking open, new realities were taking shape, and the life of discipleship was changed forever. The wind swirled around the gathered people, the same wind which on the very first morning swept across the dark waters and brought order out of chaos. The wind of Genesis was again bringing something new to life.

Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and each of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. What a strange and profound moment this must have been! After days of waiting in prayer God had showed up and quickly put things into action. Though the Spirit brought order out of chaos in Genesis, this must have felt like the opposite. I imagine the disciples running about within the house exclaiming great things in languages they themselves had never heard before. Something this incredible and inexplicable could not be contained to one house alone, and a crowd quickly gathered and was bewildered by the indescribable moment.

Jews from all over had gathered in Jerusalem when this took place and they began to hear these nobody disciples speaking in the native languages of all the people. Amazed by this, they questioned how it was possible, and quickly decided to blame it on an excessive use of alcohol.

The crowd’s demand for an answer was a cue for one of the disciples to stand and speak. And who, among the disciples, could have imagined that Peter would have been the one to do so? Peter is the first, the very first to lift up his voice and proclaim proudly and faithfully the word that he was unable to when Jesus had been arrested. The man who had been so quick to deny Christ three times, is the one who stepped forward to share the glory of God’s kingdom with all who questioned this miracle.

Peter preached a sermon, he shared the story of God in Christ, all by the power of the Spirit: “listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, winds, and signs that God did through him among you, and you yourselves know — this man, who was handed over to be crucified and killed, was raised by God, having been freed from death because it was impossible for him to be held in its power…” Peter told the story that he had witnessed and thus helped give birth to the church that we now participate in today.

 

I have been here at St. John’s for almost a year. The last twelve months have been filled with changes, excitement, new life, and joy. I give glory to God for sending me to a place with such faithful people who have helped me to see God in new and wonderful ways, while also allowing me to do the same. 

I knew that, upon arrival, one of the most important things I could do would be to learn the collective story of the church. I have met with many of you to learn about your lives and your stories in such a way that I could learn about our community that gathers here for worship. When I meet with couples I almost always ask the same question: How did you two meet? I ask this question because how two people met says a considerable amount about their relationship, and most people love to tell that particular story.

I can tell you with joy this morning, that many of you met in wonderful and joyful ways. I have had the privilege to hear about a couple who met on a Greyhound bus traveling to Radford, VA over 65 years ago. We have a couple who met at a brewery when the young woman complimented the young man on his beard. Or there’s the couple who met in a spousal grief group after having both been divorced. We even have a couple who met here in church and the boy asked his brother to the get the number of the girl so he could ask her out later.

I love asking how a couple met because people can tell the story with all the important details. They can remember the outfits they were wearing, the weather outside, and the other people who were present. They can describe with vivid clarity that first smile they saw, or the way their fingers felt when they wove them together for the first time. And frankly, I love asking the question because it is hilarious to watch men and women argue about the details of a meeting from their own perspectives.

(Photo Credit: Jill Nicole Photography)

(Photo Credit: Jill Nicole Photography)

But sometimes I think about the gospel story and I wonder how that connects us. I freely admit that when I ask couples about how they met I am not expecting anyone to start talking about Moses or Abraham or the Holy Spirit. But the Gospel story is one that we should know just as well. Many of you have been attending church for your whole lives, and even those of you who have recently started to attend, have heard the story of God in Christ week in and week out. The story that we find in scripture is inescapable because it is ours. 

I ask people about who they met because it teaches me about whom they are. It helps to reveal parts and aspects of personality that would otherwise remain hidden, it sheds light on what brings people joy and how they connect with others. But in the same way, the Gospel is who we are. It is as much a part of our personalities and joy and interconnected as the story about how we met our spouses.

When Peter stood in front of the crowd on the day of Pentecost he told the story of God in the world through Jesus, his friend and Lord. With confidence and bravery he proclaimed the same story that we tell here in church every week. We should know the story that Peter shared, we should be able to tell it with the same clarity and detail and faithfulness. Imagine how powerful the gospel story would be, if you knew it and believed it and experienced it in the same way you met your spouse.

The gospel is something worth sharing. I don’t mean in the sense that you should start knocking on people’s doors to ask: “Have you heard about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?” But I want to question our willingness to keep telling this wonderful and life-giving story.

After all, how would anyone know whether or not you’re a Christian?

Maybe you wear a cross around your neck, or you pray before your meals at restaurants, or you tell people about what fun activities are going on at your church… But seriously, how would anyone know if you’re a Christian?

We can tell the story of God’s interaction in the world through ways that are both faithful and fruitful. Like those first disciples the Holy Spirit has been poured on to us in such a way that we are now filled with the Spirit and have been given gifts. The disciples were given the power to speak in numerous languages in order to convey the gospel to the multitudes. Today we have been given the power to meet people where they are in order to be Christ’s body for the world.

Imagine the next time someone started to tell you about a recent tragedy, you responded by asking to pray for them. Or the next time you hear about a family thats having a difficult time adjusting to a new life in Staunton, you invite them over for dinner out of kindness rather than expectation. Or the next time you believe that someone has been treated unjustly, you speak up for them rather than expect someone else to do it. And when you’re asked why you have done these things, answer truthfully and confidently: “I am a disciple of Jesus.”

The Spirit that empowered those disciples still empowers us. Like the cacophony of languages that were all singing to the Lord at Taize, we are called to raise our voices, to go public with the good news. As we see with the way Peter proclaimed the story on behalf of the church, we also have something to say, we need only the courage to stand up, open our mouths, and begin.

Amen.

Devotional – 1 Corinthians 12.4-7

Devotional:

1 Corinthians 12.4-7

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 

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After responding to a call of ministry, the United Methodist Church requires candidates to be examined by the Board of Ordained Ministry before they are placed at a church/agency. This is done to ensure that candidates are properly prepared for the many demands of local ministry and that they are able to articulate the doctrines and principles of our church in such a way that it can be conveyed to a variety of congregations.

While many of us prepared for our interviews we heard horror stories about the difficulty of some questions that might await us: “Pretend that I just walked to your office and found out my husband had been cheating on me. How would you respond?” Or “Name the Old Testament justifications for infant baptism…” Or (one of my personal favorites) “How would you explain the Trinity (Father, Son, Spirit) to a middle school student?”

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I was blessed to not have to answer the Trinitarian question, one that regularly knocks candidates out of their comfort zone while interviewing. I know of at least one person who was delayed from passing their board because they were unable to answer the question in a way that satisfied the board. How would you answer the question? If a young Christian happened to approach you after church and ask about the trinity, what would you say?

One of the ways that I have explained it in the past is as follows: “The Trinity is like a band playing music. There are three distinct and unique elements necessary for music to be created. You need musicians, instruments, and written music. Without one the whole thing falls apart. Though they are different, they are all necessary for music to be played and enjoyed.” However, this example, for as much as I like it, is inherently flawed.

I have heard others attempt to explain the trinity as 1) a stool with three legs; with all three the chair can stand upright, but if you remove one the chair will not stand; 2) a woman who is at different times a mother, a daughter, and friend to different people; 3) a bicycle that has gears, brakes, and wheels, in order to propel itself forward. Yet all of these do not do justice to the incredible blessing and mystery that is the Trinity.

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Perhaps we’ve become so concerned with being able to explain how the Trinity works, that we no longer know how to affirm the trinity as mystery. We elevate definitions and details over and against beauty and reverence. I cannot explain the trinity, I cannot explain the infinite wonder of God because I am a finite human being. But, like Paul, I can say, “There are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”

What do you think is more important: Being able to explain the trinity? Or recognizing that the One God has blessed us with different gifts in different ways so that we can be the body of Christ for the world?

Today, let us strive to be people who recognize the gifts that we have been given by the Triune God. Let us look at those gifts to see the beauty of God’s mystery in our lives.

 

Devotional – Psalm 36.7-9

Psalm 36.7-9

How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.

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There is something tremendously powerful about baptizing and confirming youth who are old enough to make decisions and act on their own. Over the last two months it has been my distinct privilege to walk alongside some of my younger brothers and sisters in the faith as we made our way through differing confirmation classes. Every week I was surprised, astonished, and impressed with their willingness to participate and ask deep and meaningful questions.

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Yesterday morning I stood before the congregation at St. John’s and confirmed seven youth. I called them individually to kneel before our church and invited their families to lay hands on the particular confirmand. As I placed a cross necklace over their head, and placed my hands on their shoulders, I confirmed each one of them in the love and grace of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was a tremendously powerful experience and I noticed a number of people crying throughout the sanctuary as each youth was called forward.

As we surrounded the confirmands I felt, as the psalmist writes, that each youth was “taking refuge in the shadow of God’s wings.” Over the last few months they have feasted on God’s Word in God’s house learning about what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ. It is my hope and prayer that they have truly come to know and see the light that comes from God.

Holy Week is a strange time in the life of Christians. Over the next few days we will be encouraged to remember Jesus’ final week as he made his way closer and closer to the tomb. On this Monday of Holy Week I hope that you can find yourselves held within the warm embrace and care of God’s wings. As you re-experience the depth of Jesus’ death, and the glory of the resurrection, I encourage you to feast on God’s Word, let it nourish your souls, and believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Holy Week is our time to reconfirm our faith in the God who walked the streets of Jerusalem in preparation for death and life after death. These next days are an opportunity for us to rediscover the mighty acts of God in the world. This week encompasses our need to see and hear the story of God becoming like us to save us.

May God be with each of us as we feast with Jesus on Thursday, weep with him on Friday, and wait for him on Sunday.