Less Preaching, More Praying

Psalm 119.33-40

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I got burned.

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

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

less-is-more-blog-image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

prayer-changes-me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devotional – 2 Corinthians 4.16

Devotional:

2 Corinthians 4.16

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.

Weekly Devotional Image

One day I’m going to write a book about all the hilarious, remarkable, frightening, and life-giving things that have taken place during my ministry. Being a pastor is, in my opinion, one of the greatest vocations because it is a privileged responsibility. Pastors are invited in the depth of brokenness, the height of celebration, and everything in between. Some of the stories I have accrued over the last two years who never be appropriate from the pulpit, but one day I’ll get the good ones written down.

Dick Dickerson was a source of great moments. When I received a phone call about his passing away on Saturday, I gave God thanks for putting him in my life and helping me to discover what grace really looks like. But his death did not fully hit me until I announced it from the pulpit yesterday morning and I realized that I would no longer get to see his smiling face, hear his endearing laugh, or listen to one of his great stories.

For instance: When he served during World War 2 as a Quarter-Master he would lie to his superiors when requesting certain supplies saying they were for General Patton just so he could get the equipment necessary to support his troops. Or the story about how he not so subtly attempted to make conservatives out of his friends by offering them whisky only so long as they declared allegiance to the Republican Party. His life was one great story worth telling over and over.

DoNotLoseHeart

A few weeks ago we were sitting in his apartment talking about the end. Death was not far away and Dick’s bone cancer was getting worse and worse everyday. Yet, he was completely prepared for it. He kept saying, “I’m ready for the Lord to take me.” While the pain was striking deep in his bones he kept such tremendous faith because he knew the Lord was with him and waiting to take him home.

When we lose the people we love, we are caught in a dilemma. On some level we are thankful that they are finally at peace and have gone to be with God, but at the same time we mourn losing them in our lives. Yet Dick was a witness to the kind of faith we are called to have: His outer nature was wasting away, but his faith was growing each and every day. The last thing Dick ever said to me was this: “I never knew God could love me this much.”

This week, let us reflect on what it means to keep the faith. Not a blind faith without doubt, but a willingness to see how our inner nature is being renewed even while our outer nature wastes away. Let us give thanks to God for all who have gone on before us, and pray that the Lord would give us the strength to be better witnesses for those who will come after us.

Devotional – Mark 1.28

Devotional:

Mark 1.28

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

Weekly Devotional Image

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

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

Gossip

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

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

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

Devotional – Jeremiah 31.14

Devotional:

Jeremiah 31.14

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

Weekly Devotional Image

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

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

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

Be-Present

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

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

My Cup Runneth Over – Sermon on Psalm 23

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

mycuprunnethoverwater

The 23rd Psalm. Many of you know that I am far more eager to preach on the lesser-known texts of scripture, than I am to preach on those that are remarkably familiar. I decided months ago that after my wedding and honeymoon, Psalm 23 would be the first text I preached on, precisely because it was familiar. All things considered, I have been very busy the last few weeks, and I thought that it would be easy to prepare a sermon on this beloved text; I was so wrong.

When we proclaim one of the best known texts from the Bible, there is an incredible amount of baggage that comes with it. If I wanted to preach on something from Obadiah or Nehemiah, I could say a whole lot about whatever I wanted because so many of us are unfamiliar with the texts, myself included.

psalm23-lg

But when you hear Psalm 23 read aloud, many of us immediately have a memory or a determined understanding of what the text means. Its familiarity makes it challenging to proclaim because we’ve all heard it before; The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…

What is it about this psalm that makes it so beloved? Perhaps many of us were taught to memorize the psalm when we were younger. Maybe some of us can remember our mothers and grandmothers whispering it by their bedside before they went to sleep. Is it the simplicity, the ease for memorization? It the use of this psalm in contemporary pop-culture? Besides the Lord’s prayer and John 3.16, this is perhaps the best known of all the Christian scriptures.

I believe what makes this psalm so compelling is not so much its brevity, but instead its realism. This is no happy-go-lucky, “everything is awesome,” kind of passage. Rather, it faithfully faces the dark realities of what life is really like, while at the same time calls us to honestly remember the delights of life. It has become so popular and beloved that many of us can recite it from memory, but have lost touch with what the passage is saying. Every verse contains a wealth of theological treasure waiting to be uncovered and enjoyed.

Good

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. We of course remember immediately that Christ is the good shepherd, as our wonderful stained glass window portrays. God in Christ is the guardian of the church. The great I AM shepherded the Israelites through the wilderness, delivering them from slavery and captivity to the promised land. The Lord was the shepherd to the prophets who proclaimed the Word to the lost Israelites. God helped shepherd Christ throughout Galilee, even to the cross. Our Father was the shepherd to the disciples as they spread the gospel throughout the world. The great shepherd is now with us, guiding and keeping watch over all that we do as we witness to God’s love in the world.

God guards the flock as a whole, the sheep have been brought into the fold. Each of us are one of God’s sheep; we are safer if we stay connected with one another. If the church begins to stampede in one direction, some will be inevitably lost. If the church divides into factions, we will be like a panicking flock of sheep. We listen for the great shepherd who leads us.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. In our modern lives we seem to have lost the power to relax; we no longer know what it means to observe sabbath time in our lives. We succumb to the power of stress that overcomes us regularly, and lose the energy to live vibrant and fulfilling lives. So, God, father of all mercy, bids us to relax, to observe some sort of sabbath in our lives, and to find rest. However, notice that rest is not a end in itself, God restores our souls through rest so that we can continue on our faithful journeys. Life is filled with movement, following the paths of righteousness.

He leads me in rights paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me. God leads us, as the shepherd, on the right paths. So much of the vital moments and decisions in our lives do not come from our choosing; we do not determine the time of our birth, the kind of parents that we will have, the culture in which we find ourselves, the opportunities that “come our way.” At times life is beyond our control, and that is a good thing! To so desperately seek control of our lives will eventually end in disappointment. In order for God to be the shepherd of our lives, we have to let him into our hearts to shepherd us and guide us on the paths of righteousness. We need to let God be in control. It is only when we let go that we can faithfully proclaim, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” It is only when we let go that we can know that God is with us.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil. Like any good shepherd, God has brought his flock back home to safety, brought us to his table, just like the table that has been prepared for us here. Some of our truest enemies might be with us here in church this morning, but God has prepared the table for you so that you can feast with friend and foe. 

lord__s_supper_by_bclary-d37hhzp

And so now we come to an incredible collection of words that encompass God’s goodness in our lives: my cup runneth over

How often do we take time to look back and reflect on what God has done for us? How much time do we spend in prayer thanking God for all that he has done? Can we faithfully declare “my cup runneth over…”?

10256438_10203577672981569_6139148774861837965_o

Today, of course, is Mother’s Day. I am blessed and privileged to have a mother who has cared for, and loved me, every day of my life. A mother who is still so accustomed to attending swim meets, baseball games, and band concerts, that she will drive two and a half hours to attend church with us here at St. John’s. A mother who participated in my life and activities, but gave me the freedom to grow and experience life independently. A mother who sacrificed her own needs again and again because she loved me. My cup runneth over. 

Some of you might not have had a mother like mine, some of you may have lost your mother, some of you might have grown up without a mother, but look around you. The call of the Christian is to be motherly to all that have gathered here. Though your mother might not have been like mine, I know that each of you have mothers in Christ that are here with us today. Our cups runneth over.

980415_10201896436508405_1440994831162466171_o

On April 27th I stood at the front of Aldersgate UMC in Alexandria, VA, waiting for Lindsey Rickerson to walk down the aisle with her father. I cannot tell you how nervous I was. I know that I was leaning from side to side, standing before all of my family and friends, my nerves attempting to get the better of me, but the moment Lindsey appeared at the back of the sanctuary I felt God’s presence surround me with a sense of calm I have rarely experienced. I covenanted with God and Lindsey to love, honor, and keep her with all that I am for the rest of my life. I am blessed to be her husband. Lindsey has changed my life for the better on numerous occasions, she challenges me to be a better man, and lives out God’s call on her life every single day. My cup runneth over. 

Some of you might not have a spouse like mine, some of you may have lost yours, or never felt called to be married in the first place, but today and for all days I get the joy of sharing Lindsey with you. We are all called to love one another in such a tremendously wonderful way that people like Lindsey can be and live for those that have gathered as the body of Christ. Our cups runneth over.

1610046_10152482968867577_1866027851814592445_n

After the wedding, while Lindsey and I celebrated at the reception. I had countless staff members continually refill my glass to the degree that I literally learned what it meant for my cup to runneth over. I looked around the reception hall and saw joyful faces that conveyed endless memories of how much my life has been shaped by others. In that room I witnessed God’s incredible goodness manifest in the lives of so many that I have been blessed to call my friends. My cup runneth over.

Some of you might not have the opportunity to sit in a room surrounded by droves of friends and family to congratulate you on the newest development in your life. You might feel lonely and isolated in your current life situations. But look around the sanctuary. Being one in Christ means that we discover our newest and greatest friendships here at church. Christian friendship and fellowship is what made the church so appealing in the beginning, and it rests at the very fabric for what it means to be the church today. I look out from this pulpit and I see the friendships that will sustain all of us through the coming years. Our cups runneth over.

The 23rd psalm is filled with such vivid and realistic imagery, applicable for our daily living. The great shepherd tends to his sheep, keeping them close and protecting them from harm. Our God compels us to find rest so that we can continue on our journeys of faith. The Lord invites us to this his table so that we might feast on heavenly food and meet the divine. But today, the Lord asks us to look on our lives and remember our blessings.

10172672_10104460766255513_8430566301283982547_n

Because our blessings are everywhere; from the tiniest details of a perfect sunset, to a incredible wedding and the joining together of two people. God has blessed our lives over and over again. We have the choice to reflect on his goodness, or remain in our suffering. Today we remember what God has done, we remember our mothers, and the call of the church to be motherly toward everyone, we give thanks to the Lord our God for shaping us through those we call our friends.

It’s only when we look at our lives and faithfully say, “my cup runneth over” that we can begin to proclaim the final verse of psalm 23: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever.” Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 18.1-2

Devotional:

Psalm 18.1-2

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.”

Weekly Devotional Image

5 days. In 5 days I will be waiting at the altar of my home church, watching a beautiful bride walk down the center aisle to stand next to me as we enter holy matrimony. It has been more than a year since I asked for her Father’s blessing and placed a ring on her finger; I cannot believe the wedding weekend is so close. Words do not do justice to the love and joy that Lindsey has blessed me with, and I am so excited for us to stand before God, our families, and our friends, as we covenant together.

741111_4136006929474_543179185_o

Our journey to the wedding has been filled with both wonder and trials. At first, Lindsey did not like me nearly as much as I liked her. My planned and executed dates were met with platonic affection. As I began to back away, she stepped forward and the tables had turned. Our relationship began out of a willingness to be honest with one another and find harmony in our time spent together.

We dated throughout our time in Durham, North Carolina surrounded by friends who helped to cultivate and nourish our relationship. We were spoiled rotten by our peers from work and school who went our of their way to include us and make us better than we were.

431201_673719668650_364622628_n

When we moved to Staunton we lost the familiarity of seminary/work in addition to our social network of friends. For months Lindsey and I had to live into a community that was very different than what we left. Lindsey had to find work, and I had to adjust to the work of St. John’s. Learning and appreciating the culture of our new home has been difficult, but with the wedding so close in sight I can say, without a doubt, that we are exactly where we are supposed to be.

1012326_10151692266377840_921328894_n

From the very beginning of our relationship we have tried to keep God at the center of our focus. Some of our first conversations were about how God has revealed himself in our lives and we have strived to keep that at the forefront of our minds. As I prepare to join Lindsey in wedded life I believe that I am only where I am because God is my Lord, and I recognize that the good in my life has come from Him.

This week I encourage each of you to take a look at your lives. When have you had your trials and tribulations? When has God been revealed to you? Do you take refuge in the Lord? Do you see the goodness of your life as a gift from God?

If we are an Easter people, a people of resurrection, then God can make all things new. No matter where you are, may God bless you as he has blessed us.

 

But I Say…2 – Sermon on Psalm 119.33-40 & Matthew 5.43-48

Psalm 119.33-40

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

Matthew 5.43-48

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sister, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

257760778642631661_Ag9PBVg2_c

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Annual Conference is that one time of the year that all the diehard Methodists get together for a weekend of facts, faith, and fellowship. Representatives from each church gather in an effort to discuss contemporary issues facing the church, learn from various speakers, and celebrate the ordination and retirement of particular clergy.

A few summers ago, while serving a church outside of Detroit, Michigan, I was invited to attend the Detroit Annual Conference session. I listened to members of the conference debate whether or not to give more money to fight against malaria in Africa, how to address concerns over our pension system, and arguments about what it means to pray for physical healing in the church. Toward the end of the session, we came to my favorite part of every Annual Conference, The Service of Ordination. People, young and old alike, who felt the call of God on the lives to pursue a life of ministry, folk who have worked and sacrificed for years to be standing in front of all the people, were preparing to be commissioned and ordained for work in the church.

Detroit Annual Conference

Detroit Annual Conference

As the small group of adults stood shoulder to shoulder on the stage I wondered about their backgrounds, where they might be appointed, and what kind of ministerial careers they would have. Dressed in their robes, the candidates prepared to answer the traditional Wesleyan questions that thousands of Methodist clergy have had to answer over the last two centuries.

“Have you faith in Christ?”

The candidates definitively responded with a resounding “Yes!”

“Do you believe in the ordinances of the United Methodist Church?”

“Yes!”

“Are you going on to perfection?” 

Most of the responses we completely in sync, except for one woman toward the end. Instead of answering like her fellow peers, she shook her head as if to say no, while her voice said yes. 

YES

YES

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.

For that one clergy candidate, achieving perfection was something that she was clearly unsure about. I imagine that she understood her own fallibility, her sinfulness, as preventing her from ever being perfect. Moreover she probably thought that only Christ could be perfect and that it would never be possible for her.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.

 

Here we are again, caught up in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It was hard enough that he told his disciples to not lose their tempter, to not lust, and to renounce the right to retaliate; but now Jesus is instructing us to love those who hate and harm us. Really? Jesus is like that boss or parent that knowingly give us a list of things to do that we can never accomplish. Why does Jesus expect the impossible from those who follow him?

Using the same formula that we talked about last week, Jesus establishes the current expectations of the law and then he enhances them: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be the children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Two important questions arise from Jesus’ declaration: Who is my enemy?; Why am I supposed to love them? 

Enemy number 1: Those who are evil. Anyone who takes advantage of the weak, anyone who promotes violence in power struggles, and anyone who exhibits evil in the world is my enemy. They are the ones who actively seek to work against God’s love and kingdom in the world. They are the people who participate in destructive tendencies toward others and are fans of violence, subjugation, and selfishness.

Enemy number 2: My friends and family. In many ways, some of our greatest enemies are those who are closest to us. Our friends and family are the ones who set expectations for what our lives are supposed to look like. They are the ones who know whether or not we are living up to our potential. They see our truest sides, they know about our weaknesses, they remember our history. When we create walls between ourselves and those who are close to us, we often do so because we are afraid of being too vulnerable with them, we fear what they can do to us.

Enemy number 3: Ourselves. I am my own worst enemy. I am the commander of my life. I am responsible for the choices and decisions I make. I know my own weaknesses better than anyone else, I hold myself to a standard that, when not met, leaves me feeling down and blue. I have more power than I should regarding the hearts, minds, and souls of so many people in my life, and if I abuse that power, I become an even greater enemy than anyone else in my life.

When we hear that Jesus calls us to love and pray for our enemies we do well to not relegate our enemies to far away and distant peoples. Our worst enemies might be sitting here with us in church this morning. We all have enemies in ways, that sometimes, we cannot even imagine. That neighbor who always trims your bushes, or that acquaintance who always takes advantage of your hospitality, or that stranger who belittles people at the supermarket are just as much our enemies as those who bring and promote terror across the world. For the Christian, the words neighbor and enemy are synonymous and are remarkably far reaching.

And Jesus tells us to love them, and to pray for them.

So, why? Why are we supposed to love those who hate and persecute us? Why does Jesus call us to love the people who often make our lives miserable?

We are not called to love them in order to change them. Thats not the point. Certainly the conversion of an enemy to a trusted friend can be the result of our discipleship and call to love, but it is not necessary, nor should it be our motivation for loving our enemies. Love is not a weapon or a tool. Genuine love has not ulterior motive; its purpose is simply to benefit the one being loved, regardless of the response. We are called to love unconditionally.

If you love someone, enemy or not, in order to change them, they will never change. Our love for others should not come with baggage but must be the same as the free and unconditional love and grace that comes to us from God.

We love others because God first loved us. Elsewhere in the world, it is normal to return love for love and hate for hate. Christians who do no more than this fade into the background of life. They cannot be the light of the world and salt of the earth.

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. This kind of love is less about feelings and more about actions. For the early Christians to love the Roman oppressor or the face slapping persecutor was not about having “warm and fuzzy feelings” but to react in a positive way. I know that we have been trained to think of love as a feeling, particularly in the wake of Valentine’s day, but love is something you DO. That why Jesus calls his disciples to go the extra mile and turn the other cheek; physical embodiments of love for our enemies. Whatever else you can do to love your enemy, Jesus leaves it up to our imaginations as to how we can do so. Our love for others is called to be abnormal, above and beyond what the world would be satisfied with.

In addition to the embodiment, the DOING, of love, we are also called to pray for our enemies. You have heard it said that if you do this its enough, well to Jesus we can always do more, we can always be better. Loving our enemies is one thing, it is difficult and taxing, but praying for our enemies is another thing altogether.

love-your-enemies_dvd.original

Praying for our enemies requires us to seriously attempt to see them from God’s point of view. The sun rises on the evil and the good, and God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. We cannot truly pray for our enemies without acknowledge our common humanity; our enemies have been created in the image of God, just as we were. And no matter how bad they are, no matter how nefarious, no matter how sinful, nothing can ever erase God’s image from their lives, nor from ours.

The call to pray for our enemies is like being a parent who can earnestly say to their child, “I love you, but I don’t like what you’re doing.” Praying for our enemies will always fall short unless we remember that God love us just as much as our enemies. Seeing them in the light of God’s love is the first step toward loving them, and praying for them.

So, is this even possible? Are we capable of loving and praying for our enemies? Can we be perfect? If we try to do it on our own, it is impossible. Only by the grace of God, only with God’s help, can we heed Jesus’ call to love and pray for our enemies. Truly I tell you, this is one of the most difficult aspects of being a Christian. We are called to an impossible life, if we try to do it on our own. Christ is not asking us to simply “like” everybody, but rather to act and pray in love toward those we like and those we do not like.

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. 

At our Lectionary Bible Study this week, we sat in one of the Sunday school rooms and read this text out loud. As usual, many of the comments and questions were quite profound leading toward a greater understanding of the text for all of us. As we were coming to the end of our time together, Betty Hairfield offered a story regarding this idea of perfection.

Years ago, while Betty was in college, she began worshipping at a United Methodist Church because it was closer to campus than the denomination she grew up with. One day Betty was told about the question of perfection that all ministerial candidates were asked about. Like the woman who shook her head while saying “yes,” Betty kept the words close to her heart and she began to understand the depth of the question: “Are you going on to perfection?” For Betty, this was a transformative moment. If perfection is not our goal, then whats the point? Why should we continue to worship a God who loves unless we try to live better lives. That realization, that question of perfection, is what led Betty to join the United Methodist Church.

We are not called to be content with the mediocrity of discipleship but instead we are called to live radical and abnormal lives. Like the psalmist we need to pray for God’s wisdom and grace to be the kind of people who can change the world. We need to strive to be better than good, to live into the new reality that Jesus established with his life, death, and resurrection. Love and pray for those who are evil, for your friends and family, and for yourselves!

Are we going on to perfection? Yes, but only with God’s help.

Amen.