The Devil Is In The Details

Luke 4.1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

It is a long standing tradition in the church to begin the forty days of Lent with Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. We, in a sense, mirror the journey Jesus faced with our own attempts at wrestling with temptation while abstaining from certain items, behaviors, and practices. 

It’s not the easiest section of the church calendar.

The hymns are all a little too on the nose, the sermons call to question all of our wandering hearts, and even the scriptures reject our desire to look at anything but the cross.

We, then, can do lots of things as a church during this particular liturgical season, but at some point or another we will all raise the question we’ve had since the very beginning of the church: “Who, exactly, is this Jesus?”

It was just a few weeks ago that we were worshipping the baby born King in the manger, with little angels and shepherds wandering around the sanctuary. It’s easy to worship that Jesus because in infancy there isn’t much for us to come to grips with. We can confess the wonder of the incarnation, but we’re not entirely sure what that has to do with you or me.

But then, here in Lent, it’s like the Spirit wants to smack us over the head with the truth of the Truth incarnate.

And we start with Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.

This vignette in the strange new world of the Bible tells us exactly who this Jesus is, and who he will be.

Oddly enough, it offers us a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos – it helps us see that the story of Christ will end just as it begins.

Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan and then he is led by the spirit into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.

“Hey JC!” The devil begins, “If you are who you say you are, I’m gonna need to see some ID. No pockets in your robe? That’s fine. I’ll take your word for it, if you really are the Word. But, let me tell you, you look awful. I’m sure you’re hungry. Not a lot to eat out here in the wilderness. Why don’t you rustle up some bread from these stones. Who knows? That little parlor trick could come in handy down the road… what could be more holy than having mercy on the hungry and filling their bellies?”

And Jesus says, “It is written, we cannot and shall not live by bread alone.”

“So you know your scriptures!” The Devil says, “I’m impressed! And, frankly, I’m with you Son of Man. You can’t just give hungry people food for nothing. They’ll become dependent. No handouts in the Kingdom of God! But how about this? Would you like a little taste of power? And I mean, real power. Political power. Here’s the deal – I’ll give you the keys to the kingdoms here on earth, all of them. The only thing you have to do, and it’s really nothing when you think about it, I just need you to bow down and worship me.”

And Jesus says, “It is written, we shall only worship one God.”

“Okay, okay,” the Devil continues, “Don’t be such a buzzkill. So you won’t show compassion to the needy, even yourself, and you won’t go ahead and make the world a better place through political machinations. That’s fine with me. For what it’s worth, I can play the scripture game too, you know. So I’ll give you one more chance. Why don’t you leap from the top of the temple, give the people a sign of God’s power and might, for, doesn’t it say in the Psalms, ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ Just think about the kind of faith people will finally have if you show them one big miracle!”

And Jesus says, “It is written, you shall not put the Lord you God to the test.”

And then the devil leaves only to return at an opportune time.

That’s rather an ominous ending to a passage of scripture. But, no spoilers. Let stick with what we’ve got for now.

As I said at the beginning, we often use this story to give a little encouragement in resisting our own temptations. This is the time for someone like me to make a big pitch to people like you about whatever bad habit you need to drop. The time has come to shape up or ship out.

And, clearly, we’ve got plenty to work on. There are far too many people who fall asleep hungry at night, far too many children to have no bright hope for tomorrow, far too many communities that are falling prey to the devastating powers of loneliness. 

But, if that’s all this story is supposed to do, if it merely exists as a weapon to wield against sleepy and dozing congregations about being better, then Jesus certainly could’ve been a little clear about what we should or shouldn’t be going.

Put another way: If Jesus’ temptations are really about our temptations, then it would’ve been better for him to have more lines in this passage than the devil.

Scripture is always primarily about God and only secondarily about us.

But we are vain and selfish little creatures and we assume everything is always about us, and only ever about us.

Jesus’ temptations are exactly that – Jesus’ temptations. 

This isn’t a story about how we deal with our own temptations. It’s actually a story about how Jesus deals with the world – how Jesus deals with us.

Notice: the things the devil offers to the Lord, they’re all objectively good things – bread, political power, miracles

And yet, Jesus refused them. And he even used scripture to defend his refusals!

Perhaps if the devil offered Jesus an unending buffet at the golden corral, or the nuclear codes, or David Copperfield’s assortment of illusions, we could sympathize with Jesus’ dismissals. But the devil offered Jesus possibilities for transformation and Jesus said, “No, thank you.”

But here’s the real kicker, the truly wild part of this story: by the end of the Gospel Jesus will, in fact, do all of the things that the devil suggests.

Instead of turning some rocks into a nice loaf of sourdough, Jesus will feed the 5,000 with nothing more than a few slices of day old bread a handful of fresh fish.

Instead of getting caught up in all the political procedures to Make Jerusalem Great Again, Jesus reigns from the arms of the cross and eventually ascends to the right hand of the father as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Instead of pulling off a primetime Law Vegas magic special, Jesus dies, and refuses to stay dead.

For a long, long, time we’ve understood Jesus and the Devil to be figures on opposite ends of the spectrum – one good and the other bad. It even slips into out culture whenever you see a figure with an angel whispering in one ear and a red figure with a bifurcated tail whispering in the other.

And yet, at least according to this moment in scripture, the difference between the devil and Jesus isn’t the temptations themselves, but in the methods upon which those acts of power come to fruition.

And, though it might pain us to admit, the devil has some pretty decent suggestions for the Messiah – Why starve yourself Lord, when you can easily set a meal here in the wilderness? Why let these fools destroy themselves when I can give you control over everything and everyone? Why let the world continue in fear and doubt when you can prove your worth right now?

The devil, frighteningly, sounds a lot like, well, us. The devil’s ideas are some that we regularly discuss and champion.

What our community needs is another food pantry! What we need to do is make sure that we have Christians running for political offices! If only God would show us a miracle, then everyone would finally get in line and the world will finally be a better place.

But Jesus, for as much as Jesus is like us, Jesus is completely unlike us. For, in his non-answer answers he declares to the devil, and therefore to all of us, that power as we understand it doesn’t actually transform much of anything.

We can create a feeding program, but sooner or later we will introduce requirements for those who receive the food.

We can get Christians elected into the government, but at some point they will be more concerned with maintaining their power than pointing to the one from whom all things move and have their being.

We can witness miracle after miracle after miracle, but we will never be quite satisfied with what we receive.

We’ve convinced ourselves, since that fateful day with a certain fruit in a certain tree, that it’s up to us to make things come out right in the end. That, by amassing power, we can make the world a better place.

In the early days of the church, we got so cozy with the powers and the principalities that individuals were forced to be baptized in order to becomes citizens in the empire.

In the Middle Ages, the church required more and more of the resources of God’s people in order to get their loved ones out of purgatory all while cathedrals got bigger, as did the waistlines of the clergy.

And even today, our lust for power (political, theological, economic), has led to violence, familiar strife, and ecclesial schisms.

We believe, more than anything else, that if we just had a little more control, if we just won one more debate, if we could just get everyone else to be like us, that it would finally turn out for the best.

But it never does.

If we could’ve fixed the world with our goodness, we would’ve done it by now.

Or, conversely, some of the most horrific moments of history were done in the name of progress.

The devil wants to give Jesus a short cut straight to the ends that Jesus will, inevitably, bring about in his own life, death, and resurrection.

The devil wants Jesus to do what we want Jesus to do.

Or, perhaps better put: The devil wants Jesus to do what WE want to do.

But here’s the Good News, the really Good News, Jesus rejects the temptations of the devil, and our own, and instead does for us what we would not, and could not, do for ourselves.

Even at the very end, with his arms stretched out not he cross, we still tempt the Lord just as the devil did: “If you really are who you say you are, save yourself!”

And, at the end, Jesus doesn’t bother with quotes from the scriptures, nor does he provide us with a plan on how to make the world a better place, he simply dies.

Instead of saving himself, Jesus saves us. Amen.

The Strange Familiar

John 6.5-6

When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 

Robert Farrar Capon was a master of making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. He made his career as a priest, and then as a theologian, and then as a chef, and then as a little bit of all of them combined. His writing on the Gospels is refreshingly funny and yet profoundly serious and I find myself drawn back to his books again and again.

Perhaps my favorite work of Capon’s is his 1990 book The Man Who Met God In A Bar. It’s basically a modern retelling of the biblical Gospel story of Jesus, but instead of it taking place in and around Galilee circa 30-33 AD, it’s told as if Jesus was actually a short-order cook named Jerry in Cleveland circa the 1990s who finds Marvin (Peter) not in the middle of a fishing venture, but instead in an airport bar during a layover. The story is told from Marvin’s perspective as he gets caught up in something much larger than himself ripe with miracles, teachings, and even death and resurrection.

Capon delights in taking these familiar stories and flipping them slightly on their head so that we, the reader, can reproach the Gospel stories with a fresh and delightful appreciation. For instance, partway through the novel, Marvin gathers with Jerry and a whole crowd of people within the confines of a city park and Jerry goes on and on telling stories until he realizes the crowds look a little famished. Jerry remarks that it would be nice if they had some pizza and wine for everyone to enjoy. But, of course, that would cost a fortune. So Jerry calls over a little girl walking by the park with a pizza in her arms and decides to whistle up some miraculous food multiplication and begins to feed everyone in the park from that one pizza, with anchovies (Get it? Loaves and fishes!).

And then Capon brings the story home:

“Up to then Jerry just thought that people might take his miracles as a substitute for the message; after that though, the “might” disappeared in favor of “would.” He was finally convinced that any miracle he did would be practically guaranteed to give people the wrong impression… After the one with the pizza, especially since he did it on a day when he’d talked for three hours about the mess the old order was in – they got really serious about trying to put him in some position where he could do his miracles on a grand scale. The talk about him becoming mayor and president wasn’t just hot air; if he hadn’t gotten away from that crowd, sure as hell somebody would have organized something… All he kept saying, though, was how that wouldn’t solve anything. Even if people got food miraculously, he told them, they would still die eventually. The food they really need to be filled with was something that would make a real break with the old order – something that would actually bring in the New Order if they ate it. In fact, he said, unless they were filled with him, they would just stay dead forever. If they fed on him, though, he would raise them from death for good.” 

Sometimes, retelling an old story in a new way allows us to see and receive something we would otherwise miss. In fact, that’s basically what we do every Sunday in church. We pray and we sing and we listen to the words that proclaim the Gospel, we feast on the bread and the cup that are offered to us without cost, and we are reminded that Jesus came not to bring us more of the same, but to make all things new. Thanks be to God.

And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological claims than mere words alone, here are sometimes to help us think about making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar:

Courtney Barnett is a singer-songwriter from Australia who excels at making music out of the mundane. Her new single “Rae Street” is an almost stream of conscious reflection of the lives of the people who pass by her window in the early morning. The charm really hits when she’s able to jump between making a profound declaration about the need for society to change, and yet, the most she can muster is changing her sheets. The song is anthemic for anyone who struggles to make sense of it all and for anyone who hopes for something more, whatever that might be.

Orla Gartland is a quickly rising indie darling from Dublin. Her new single “You’re Not Special, Babe” is a reflection on growing up in a time of chaos and is a reminder that we all go through the same kinds of things: good times, bad times, strange times. The title, and the chorus of the song, can come off as a little mean-spirited but in interviews she claims it’s meant to be a comforting message! To me, that sounds rather Pauline – “None is righteous, no, not one.” Thanks be to God then that we worship the Lord who comes to make something of our nothing.

“Reach Out” is one of the first releases from Sufjan Steven’s collaboration with Angelo De Augustine. The song is based on the 1987 German film Wings of Desire in which angels listen to the thoughts of people in Berlin. One of the angels is so moved by the experience that it chooses to become mortal in order to feel and live as a human. The song conveys the themes of mortality and wonder from the angelic/human perspective with catchy harmonies, finger picking guitar, and eventually a subtle glockenspiel which make a brain melting thought experiment rather approachable. 

The Power of Power

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with April Little about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 11.1-15, Psalm 14, Ephesians 3.14-21, John 6.1-21). April is the co-host of the Reclaiming The Garden podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the buffet of scripture, exvangelicalism, The Me Too movement, agency, ordered theology, prayers of the past, charismatic Methodism, future hope, community meals, and holy moments. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Power of Power

Faithful Consequences

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Haley Husband about the readings for the 7th Sunday After Pentecost [B] (2 Samuel 6.1-5, 12b-19, Psalm 24, Ephesians 1.3-14, Mark 6.14-29). Our conversation covers a range of topics including family ties, Money Heist, liturgical dance, food, the heart of the psalter, embracing the unknown, grace in parenting, theological adoption, absent sermons, and the story within the story. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Faithful Consequences

Don’t Lie

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 32.22-31, Psalm 17.1-7, 15, Romans 9.1-5, Matthew 14.13-21). Ken is the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Biblical character identification, new names, God’s marks, pentecostal prayers, divine time, false witness, Pauline anguish, faithful food, better education, and bigger tables. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Don’t Lie

A Liturgy For Thanksgiving

I used to love Thanksgiving: the food, the family, and the fellowship. But now I kind of dread it.

Gone are the days of civil and non-partisan Thanksgiving tables. Now we wear our red hats or bicker about the midterms, we jockey seats to surround ourselves with those of the same persuasion, and we find ourselves replenishing our wine with every passing political anecdote.

Therefore I have created a brief thanksgiving liturgy to be used by anyone in order to redeem the table. You may say it privately to yourself, or you may publicly read it aloud, but the hope is that it will bring a sense of theological clarity to what was once one of my favorite holidays…

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Prayer:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom who have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen. 

Read Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He taketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me beside the still waters; he restoreth my soul. He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Meditation:

The Bible is one long and flowing narrative about the goodness of creation, the brokenness that often comes through sin, and God’s work to restore all of creation to its wholeness. The 23rd Psalm reminds us that we will inevitably walk through dark valleys, but we will do so with the Lord by our side. It is therefore at our Thanksgiving tables that we discover the strange truth of what it means to sit at a table prepared in the presence of our enemies; our enemies might not be our families and friends, but our greatest enemy might actually be ourselves. And so, let us take a moment to reflect on our own brokenness and the grace that God has offered, such that we can then go around the table and truly express something for which we are particularly grateful for this year. Or, to put it another way, how have we experienced our cups running over this year?

Prayer:

Lord, help us to be mindful of those who do not have a table such as this one around which we can gather, celebrate, remember, and rejoice in all that you’ve done, are doing, and will do. As we eat and feast together, let the breaking of bread be a foretaste of the promised resurrection made possible through your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. 

We Are What We Eat

John 21.9-17

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” Because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”

My first Sunday at Cokesbury felt like a whirlwind. I remember being extremely nervous and trying desperately hard to remember every name that I heard. I remember praying out in the narthex that God would make something of my nothing. I remember worrying about whether or not all of you would laugh when I made a joke about being closer in age to the youth than to almost everyone else.

But I also remember feeling like I blinked and the worship service was over and all of the sudden I was upstairs sitting at a table with my wife and son, wondering what had just happened. People were milling about, waiting to eat their food, when someone motioned for me to stand up and pray, so I did.

I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was probably something like, “Lord, bless the food we are about to receive that it might nourish our bodies for your service. We are grateful for the land that it came from and the lives that were sacrificed for it. Please help us be mindful of those who do not have food like this, and friends like these. Amen.”

And like the words implies, with the “amen” everyone promptly dug into all of their food.

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But, anyway, after eating there was some time for questions and answers. I don’t remember any of them. Though I do remember that after all was said and done, somebody came up to me and asked, “Are you going to pray like that before every meal?”

I wasn’t sure how to respond, but I asked if I misspoke during the prayer, after all it was a rather overwhelming day. And they said, “I don’t like thinking about things dying just so I can eat.”

When we eat, we are doing something remarkably profound. It is always more than satiating the hunger in our bellies, it is always more than moving our mandibles to chew, it is always more than a perfunctory necessity. For us to eat – others have to die.

But many of us, including that person my first Sunday, don’t like confronting the profound reality of our eating and our food. We’ve grown content with the ultra-commodification of our eating whereby we can get anything we want, whenever we want it. 

And we don’t have to think twice about where it came from, or what it took to get to us.

Food is important! No only because without it we die, but because our food, and how we eat it, says so much about who we are, what we believe, and what we value.

Just about every religious system in the world have some sort of rituals, or rules, or expectations about food. In Buddhism vegetarian diets are desired, in Hinduism beef is prohibited, in Islam and Judaism the consumption of pork is not allowed, and in Christianity, we believe Jesus is the bread of life.

Food is important!

And yet here, in America, our connection with and to our food is one that has altogether lost its sacredness.

20% of all American meals are eaten in car. That means the average American eats at least one meal in the car every other day. And the overwhelming majority of those meals are consumed alone.

1 out of every 5 children will go hungry, multiple days without eating, at least once a year. And among Black and Latino children the rate is 1 in 3.

And somehow (!) we throw away more than 40% of our food every year – a waste of $165 billion annually. 

We have such little respect for the food we eat, and don’t eat apparently, that we rarely even think about it. And those who hold the power and economic dominance in food production have convinced us that we should prefer food that is already prepared. Countless companies will grow, deliver, and cook food for us (just like out mothers) and convince us to eat it. That they do not yet offer to insert it, pre-chewed, into our mouths is only because they have found no profitable way to do so.

Food, though theologically and biologically important, has become just another chore on our never-ending to-do lists and with every passing year our kitchens more and more resemble filling stations, just as our homes more and more resemble motels.

Eating food is one of the most primal and basic and simple ways we learn to delight in each other, and in the goodness of God’s creation. 

Eating with other people is without a doubt one of the most important and practical ways by which we overcome the barriers of ignorance that separate us from one another.

We are what we eat.

Or, perhaps a better way to put it would be: we are consumed by what we consume.

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It was on the other side of Easter when the disciples were out fishing one night, and when they returned to the shore in the dim morning light, they saw a man standing by a charcoal fire. They know, or maybe they don’t know, that its the resurrected Jesus, and he has decided to make them breakfast on the flames – bread and fish.

We know that they ate, but we know nothing of what they talked about during the breakfast chatter – but when the food was finally consumed, Jesus asked Peter three times about his love.

Three times in order to redeem the three denials of Jesus prior to his crucifixion.

And as Peter’s frustration grows with the persistent line of investigation, Jesus’ resolve remains steadfast – Feed. My. Sheep. 

The food by the shore is simple, it is local, it is fresh. And it is after consuming the food that Peter is in the place to be redeemed – to be turned back to the Lord from his wanderings. It is in the call to feed the sheep, to feed the disciples, perhaps both literally and figuratively, that Peter returns to the fold of discipleship.

This story, this little vignette by the charcoal fire, is a prelude to what we do at this table, God’s table, when we commune with one another and the Lord. As we break bread we are being warmed by the fire lit by Jesus, we are filled with the bread of life to do the work of God in the world, and we are made right in our willingness to answer Jesus’ question.

Jesus knew that one of the quickest ways to our hearts is through our bellies. And there is a vulnerability, strangely enough, that comes with food and with gathering around a table together. Taking the time to make a meal, whether simple or complex, shows a deep love for whomever we are cooking.

I imagine that many of us can remember profound moments from our lives, little windows of profound change and discovery, that came around a table with food.

And yet, we are eating around the table with others less and less. We see our eating and our food as another notch on the check-list instead of the life-giving and transformative moment by the seashore.

Because this table, in this sanctuary, is not the only table where we break bread and discover the presence of the Lord. This table extends far beyond the confines of our church and is available and manifest whenever we gather to eat.

As I noted at the beginning of the sermon, and every sermon this month, we have been taking time to encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we have also been leaving each Sunday with a challenge.

This week we are encouraging everyone to invite someone over to eat.

The meal can be as simple as cold cut sandwiches or as complicated as a five-course meal, it doesn’t really matter (though the more intentional you are with the food the more your guest will feel the love). But we are asking everyone to consider a person, family, neighbor, co-worker, whatever and invite them over for a meal. 

That might sound overly simple but that’s kind of the point. We want everyone to consider how their tables are an echo of this table right here and how gathering at home for food with others is a foretaste of the new heaven and the new earth.

And so you can leave it right there, invite someone over for a meal, or you can take it a step further by going through all of the food you currently have – in the fridge, in the freezer, in the pantry – remove anything that is expired, and donate everything you know you won’t actually eat. And then map out all of your meals for the following week. Instead of resigning yourself to picking up a prepared meal, imagine taking the time and energy to make a least one meal a day. 

And finally, if you want all the extra credit you can muster, having already invited someone to your table and then reimagining all the food you have, invite someone to eat at God’s table. It can be the person, or family you invited to you house, or someone completely different. But if we believe that what we do at this table is absolutely transformative and all powerful, then find one person to invite next Sunday when we will gather at this table yet again.

Because here, around the bread and the cup, we are truly consumed by what we consume. As we feast we are not individuals daydreaming about our own salvation, in communion we are absorbed into something much larger than our individual identities.

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This is something we do, together.

As Christians, strangely enough, we believe that through eating we become the body of Christ and that entails a willingness to be food for others. 

Just as we are fed, so too we feed those around us.

This table, any table, is an opportunity to meet the risen Lord by the fire beckoning us to another meal in which we become what we eat. Amen. 

Devotional – Deuteronomy 8.10

Devotional:

Deuteronomy 8.10

You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.

Weekly Devotional Image

When I was in college I lived in a house with a handful of other young men, though I was the only one who went to church. We had all, at some point, been involved with a church, but my roommates no longer felt the need to attend. However, as I was the one who usually made dinner for all of us, I insisted that we pray together before feasting together.

For the first few months of living together they begrudgingly participated and politely bowed their heads as I thanked God for all of our blessings. After time they started holding hands with one another while I prayed and even asked for me to included particular things in my prayers. And on one particular night, when I inexplicably forgot to pray, they were the ones who reminded me to pray on behalf of the table before we ate.

For years it was expected in many a Christian home that there would at least be a prayer before the common meal of dinner. Today, however, Thanksgiving has become one of the last refuges of prayer at a meal for many who follow Jesus.

We should pray before every meal recognizing that, as we read in Deuteronomy, the Lord has provided so much for us. But prayer is a habit that has to be cultivated; it is not something we can just institute overnight. However, we all have to start somewhere.

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There is a wonderful resource for developing a life of prayer titled Common Prayer: A Liturgy For Ordinary Radicals. And in it you can find the following prayer for before or after a meal:

“Lord God, Creator of all, in your wisdom, you have bound us together so that we must depend on others for the food we eat, the resources we use, the gifts of your creation that bring life, health, and joy. Creator God, we give thanks. Holy be the hands that sew our clothes so that we do not have to go naked; sacred be the hands that build our homes so that we do not have to be cold; blessed be the hands that work the land so that we do not have to go hungry. Creator God, we give thanks. Holy be the feet of all who labor so that we might have rest; sacred be the feet of all who run swiftly to stand with the oppressed; blessed be the feet of all whose bodies are too broken or weary to stand. Creator God, we give thanks. Holy be the sound of children laughing to take away our sorrow; sacred be the sound of water falling to take away our thirst; blessed be the sound of your people singing to heal our troubled hearts. Creator God, we give thanks. Holy be the bodies of those who know hunger; sacred be the bodies of those who are broken; blessed be the bodies of those who suffer. In your mercy and grace, soften our callous hearts and fill us with gratitude for all the gifts you have given us. In your love, break down the walls that separate us and guide us along your path of peace, that we might humbly worship you in Spirit and in truth. Amen.”

What would it look like to use this prayer before our Thanksgiving tables on Thursday? Or, perhaps more importantly, what would it look like to use this prayer every time we gather at the table to eat?

Love > Knowledge – Sermon on 1 Corinthians 8.1-9

1 Corinthians 8.1-9

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him. Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that, “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth – as in fact there are many gods and many lords – yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us closer to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

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Here’s the situation: The church in Corinth had lots of issues and Paul, as an apostle, wrote to them addressing a number of concerns and problems. At times he wrote about sexual immorality, at others he wrote about the importance of inviting everyone to receive the Lord’s Supper, but here in chapter 8, he brings up the issue of eating meat that was sacrificed to idols.

In Corinth, the elite would sacrifice their livestock to idols and then share the food with others. For some of the Corinthians they believed it was perfectly fine to eat the meat because they knew there is only one Lord and eating food would never bring them closer to God. However, others believed that if they ate some of the meat that was formerly sacrificed, they would be supporting the belief system in idols and would therefore be committing heresy.

Is this still an issue for us today? Unless your butcher is praying to satan before he/she presents your beef, then this probably does not affect you. However, this passage is not merely just about meat sacrificed to idols, and in fact is still relevant to us today.

When I moved into the parsonage I was very excited. I had spent my entire life either living with my family, or sharing apartments with roommates. For the very first time I would be living in a house, with a yard that I could take care of, with a fireplace that I could actually burn wood in! I would be living on a street with neighbors, and I casually day dreamt about someone knocking on the door to ask for some sugar. Staunton was going to be my Mayberry.

Yet, after moving everything in and getting settled I still felt isolated. I had our church community, of course, but I really wanted to meet my neighbors and create new relationships. I waited for them to stop by the house, but no one ever came.

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That’s when Lindsey and I decided to throw the first ever Bowie Street Bash. We actually wanted it to be David Bowie themed, but we were a little worried how our neighbors would respond to me dressing up like Ziggy Stardust complete with tights pants and a lightning bolt across my face. So instead we just made simple invitations to spend a Sunday afternoon together at the parsonage in order to have some fun.

Everyone came and we had a blast. We shared stories and talked about what Staunton used to be like. I saw in my neighbors true friends and realized that I was going to love living on this street.

When things were starting to wrap up, and each neighbor was preparing to head home, we said our goodbyes and promised to get together again sometime soon. However, before one of my neighbors left, she asked if she could speak to me for just a moment.

I don’t know if you drink.” she said, “but if you do, I want you to know that you are more than welcome to put your empty beer bottles in our recycling bin.

I stood there mystified. Why in the world would she offer her recycling bin for our bottles? But before I could even ask, she answered my question: “Some of your church members are known for doing drive-bys to see what you’re really up to.

Can we, as Christians, properly fit into the world of our surrounding culture? What are the lines to be drawn between accommodation to the reality of culture and unacceptable compromise?

For instance: That afternoon I began to wonder about whether or not we, as Christians, can drink alcohol. There are plenty of verses in scripture that speak against it: Do not drink because it leads to debauchery (Ephesians 5.18); Your body is a temple (1 Corinthians 6.19); etc. And there are plenty of verses that allow for it: Jesus’ first miracle was turning water into wine (John 2.1-11); Jesus shares wine with his disciples during the last supper (Matthew 26.17-30); etc.

The question at hand is this: Have we grown too comfortable with our cultural setting?

Almost every Sunday I have someone approach me after worship to apologize for not being here the previous week. Now I want you all to know that I love each and every one of you, but I do not take attendance at church. When some of you have explained and rationalized your lack of attendance, I honestly did not remember that you were not here with us.

“Taylor, sorry we were not here last week, our grandchildren were in town and we wanted to spend as much time with them as possible”, “Taylor, sorry we were not here last week, our son had a basketball game on Sunday morning and we wanted to support him.” , “Taylor, sorry I was not here last week, I overslept and would not make it in time for worship.”

I almost always respond with an affirmation of your lack of attendance by saying, “you were where you needed to be!” Most of the time I truly believe what I say, but sometimes I wonder… Have we grown so comfortable with our surroundings that church has become just something to do? Or do we believe it is the location of where we discover something worth living for?

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Paul feared how much the Corinthians were growing comfortable with their surroundings. Many professed a strong knowledge that there was only one God, so whenever they ate meat sacrificed to idols they knew what it really was. Paul commends them for their knowledge but then challenges them to see that their wisdom is not enough to help those young and weak in their faith.

You might know that you can drink responsibly, but would you offer wine to a recovering alcoholic? You might know that you love PB&Js, but would you serve one to someone with a peanut allergy?

Each of us has a stumbling block and it might be very different from the people in the pews with us.

Maybe you struggle with alcohol. Perhaps you are guilty of lusting after what others have. Some of us might fret too much about the way we look before we leave the house. A few of us might spend more time worrying who will win the Superbowl than we do about the people wandering around downtown who won’t have a warm place to sleep tonight.

1 Corinthians 8 encourages us to shine a light on our lives to see whether or not we are eating in the temples of the idols that surround us.

One of the most frightening forms of idolatry for churches today is the overwhelming power of materialism. Christians, whether we like to admit it or not, are enmeshed in economic practices that draw our loyalty away from Christ and divide the community by disregarding the poor and the needy.

Other than the irony of fighting for deals on Black Friday after Thanksgiving, Super Bowl Sunday is a sobering reminder of the power of materialism in our world today.

Tonight, Americans will eat 14,500 tons of Potato Chips, enough to fill 39 Boeing 747 Airplanes. We will eat 3.8 million pounds of popcorn, which could fill 13.5 million large buckets of popcorn from the movie theater. We will eat 4 million pizzas, which (when stacked on top of each other) would be taller than 910 Leaning Towers of Pisa. We will drink 325.5 million gallons of beer, which could fill 500 olympic size swimming pools. And we will eat 1.23 billion chicken wings, literally enough to give every person in the United States three wings each. (http://mashable.com/2015/01/28/super-bowl-food/)

What does it say about our culture when tonight we, as a country, will eat so much when so many go without food? And don’t even get me started on the commercials; millions upon millions of dollars have been spent for 30 seconds of ad space when people in our country cannot afford to go to the doctor when they are sick.

Love is greater than knowledge.

Love is more important than our looks, football games, our jobs, alcohol, and everything else in all creation. Love is what sets the church apart from the rest of the world. Love is what conquers all things and helps to show the world turned upside down.

Knowing all about the Civil Rights movement means nothing when we speak in prejudiced tones about people who do not look like us.

Knowing all about the importance of feminism means nothing when we still degrade women in the workplace and pay them at a lower percentage than their male counterparts.

Knowing all about the plight of the poor and needy in Staunton means nothing when we neglect to actually do something about it and let our love become manifest.

All of us will profit from looking in the mirror of 1 Corinthians 8 and asking whether there are ways in which we are using knowledge as a weapon rather than as an instrument of love.

Can we drink as Christians? Can we work hard to earn tremendous amounts of wealth? Can we watch the Superbowl and host big parties? Of course we can, so long as things like alcohol, money, and the Superbowl do not become idols that we worship more than the Lord of life.

The idols in our lives will never bring us closer to God. The more time we spend in culturally accepted practices that are disconnected from discipleship, the further we move away from the Lord. For the church in Corinth, they knew that food would not bring them closer to God whether from meat sacrificed to idols or not. Thanks be to God that the meal we will share in just a few moments will no longer be food, but instead it will be the body and blood of Christ.

When we gather at the table, love truly trumps knowledge. All of the idols of life fall away and pale in comparison to the gift of God on the cross for people like you and me. The table is where we discover what love really looks like; sacrifice, faithfulness, and hope.

We have set up a mirror here at the front of church. When you come up to receive the body and blood I encourage you to take a moment to look at yourself in the mirror, open your eyes to your life and see your own stumbling blocks. Let 1 Corinthians 8 be the mirror by which you begin to wrestle with the idols you worship, so that you can turn back to the Lord and let love be greater than knowledge. Amen.

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.

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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.

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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.