This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Locke about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Easter [A] (Acts 2.42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2.19-25, John 10.1-10). Sarah is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and serves at Hickory UMC in Chesapeake, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Christian friendship, sharing in the kingdom, extravagant generosity, restful places, The Art of Dying Well, Jesus as the door, and abundant life. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: I Am My Own Worst Enemy
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jim Moore about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 49.1-7, Psalm 40.1-11, 1 Corinthians 1.1-9, John 1.29-42). Our conversation covers a range of topics including internet friendships, counting people for the Lord, the burden of purpose, eucharistic time, miry bogs, divine requirements, call stories, acting like we believe what we say, and being surprised by Sunday. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Instant Pot Faith
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kameron Wilds about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost (Job 42.1-6, 10-17, Psalm 34.1-8, 19-22, Hebrews 7.23-28, Mark 10.46-52). Kameron is an ordained elder for the United Methodist Church in the Virginia Conference and currently serves at Smith Memorial UMC in Collinsville, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including loving and loathing the pastoral vocation, preaching better sermons, dust and ashes, leaning toward mystery, the use of dissonance, tasting the Lord, TV trays vs. tables, Jesus as the perfect permanent priest, and believing without seeing. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Jesus Ain’t Your Friend
1 Kings 19.9-13
At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here Elijah?”
Let’s get a few things out of the way. You two, are without a doubt, the coolest couple I know. You’re hip, and fun, and just the right amount of edgy. You eat at really awesome restaurants, you spin the best vinyl, and you both often dress the way the rest of us will five years down the road.
I know this is especially true for you Parker. Because, though we’ve known each other since elementary school, when we played house league basketball and you ran around with your bowl haircut, it was in middle school that you began wearing girl jeans, white belts, and black skinny ties. That might sound a little ubiquitous now, but I promise you were the only one in our school who dressed like that.
Liz, I cannot speak to your sartorial habits from your youth, but I can affirm that you’re sense of wonder, in particular regarding the literary world, is cooler than a cucumber. Back after my own wedding, when you and Parker were visiting us, I was trying to brag about how well read we were as a couple, when you asked if I had read anything from Elena Ferrante. And, not only had I not read anything, I hadn’t even heard of her. And then when I expressed an interest in learning more, you simply left me a your own copy without even waiting to see my reaction.
You two are too cool.
And, in addition to being cool, you two have got to be the best gift-givers I’ve ever known. Parker, you sent me a framed business card from Elvin Jones when I got ordained. For those of you who are uninformed, Elvin Jones was the greatest American Jazz drummer of the post-bop era, and he played with Coltrane. When our son Elijah was born you two sent us his very first vinyl record, and a vintage copy of a recording of Elijah Rock. And you’ve never come to see us without bringing an assortment of toys for our dog Tennessee.
And that’s just a sampling of what you’ve showered me with! I am positive that if we took the time, most of the people here would be able to share similar stories of your gracious gift-giving abilities.
You two are cool, you care very deeply for the people in your lives, and just as you have given so much to all of us, now you come here to this place, at this time, to give yourselves to each other.
James Baldwin wrote about his discovery of love being the key to life while in the midst of starving.
This is no accident.
There is something about absence that draws us to existence. In our weakness we are bound together in ways we can scarcely imagine, both as individuals, and as entire communities. And it was through Baldwin’s hunger that he discovered the overwhelmingly transformative power of love.
Baldwin, of course, is most known for his writing on race and identity, his work “The Fire Next Time” still haunts me to this day, but the selection from Baldwin you chose for your wedding, I believe is indicative of his entire work. It was a profound love for humanity that compelled Baldwin to speak so candidly about her failures. It was in the recognition of our shackles to one another, and our freedom from one another, that he experienced the mystery of glory.
There are few things more glorious in this world than two people making the profound covenant that you two are about to make. In your words, in your prayers, in your promises you will enter into that mysterious state that both confounded and excited Baldwin, this paradox in which your bondage will mean your liberation.
It is just as Rilke says, if you learn to love the expanse between you, if you learn to accept and cherish the paradox we call marriage, then you will experience the impossible possibility of see each other as a whole AND before an immense sky.
Your relationship began over a shared love of books; both evidenced in the readings your chose for your wedding and your gift giving. Though, as many of us know, Parker you did everything in your power to learn as much about what Liz liked, including books, just so you could keep talking to her. And in case anyone here doesn’t know, Liz slept through the first date.
But you both kept trying; you took steps closer to one another with your intellectual curiosities and you took steps away with your own experiences. You ventured out to new and strange places together, and then back to places of comfort and familiarity. And that give and take, the binding and the liberating, is what eventually brought you right here.
Parker, you are an extremely grounded person, almost to a fault, and I am grateful that Liz keeps you comfortably off the ground. She pushes you and challenges you in ways that would make Baldwin proud, and she loves how dedicated you are to others.
Liz, you bring a sense of wonder to your relationship that is truly wonderful. You seek out new adventures, embrace creative moments, and you excel at being in the moment. I am grateful that in Parker you found a partner who both affirms your beautiful brain and can make you laugh better than anyone else, except for maybe Lenny Bruce.
A few weeks ago, the three of us were talking and I asked both of you to consider what you think marriage actually is. I challenged you to create your own working definition of what marriage could be and this is what you said: Marriage is bringing new worlds to each other.
I like that. I like it a lot in fact. Because that’s precisely what God brings to us.
In the story of Elijah we discover the strange new world of God’s reign. Elijah is afraid, he is in fact running for his life when he comes to the cave, when he hears the probing question from the Lord, “What are you doing here?” God promises to be present for the prophet, and from the safety of the cave Elijah experiences the great wind, and the earthquake, and the fire, and even the silence. But God is not in any of those things, not even in the silence.
However, it is only in the silence that Elijah is able to hear the question for the second time, and truly began to ponder his answer, “What are you doing here?”
When I asked you two if you wanted anything particular to happen during this wedding celebration, you said silence. How perfect! In a world hell bent of berating us with sounds and words and arguments, you wanted time to shut up and listen. You wanted the silence in order to appreciate the sacredness of this moment, so as to not give yourselves over to the ways of the world.
Silence is rare in God’s scripture, but silence is not absence. Silence is often the perquisite for the most profound discoveries we could ever hope to experience. It is in the silence before the first note of a song that we enter into the strange new world of anticipation, it is in the silence shared between two friends that sets them forth on a path to the strange new world of a relationship, and it is in the silence shared between all of us right now that God asks the most important question of the strange new world you two are about to embark upon, “What are you doing here?”
Shutting up might just be the thing that sustains you in your marriage.
But, it’s not just about being silent so that the other can speak and you can appropriately listen, it’s about shutting off all the noise under which we are suffocating. Silence is the beauty of self-reflection that allows us to see who we really are in order to give ourselves to the other. Without silence, we are just clanging cymbals making noise in the void.
In your marriage built on silence, you will find speckles of the divine in the other. Those speckles will shine forth in intimate moments shared in the silence of your apartment, in the rare silence of a subway ride, in the silence shared during a meal, and even in the silence as you prepare to fall asleep in your shared bed.
Silence might just sustain your marriage.
I’ve done a lot of weddings, and for the longest time I believed that where people got married didn’t matter. In a church? That’s fine. Out in a vineyard? That’s okay. In the backyard? Sure. But then you two invited all of us here.
I don’t know if everyone knows this, but we are gathered in the middle of a labyrinth. Christians have been using abyrinths for at least 1,000 years as a way to experience the divine. The journey to the middle of the maze is one marked by contemplation, reflection, and silence. It is a journey to a new world, one in which you can’t imagine, one in which without silence becomes meaningless.
It is therefore perhaps the most appropriate place to have a wedding. You two are preparing to embark on a long journey to the center of the labyrinth we call marriage. It will be filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, and in the silence of your journey you will find each other, and God will find you.
God always find us.
When Elijah stepped forth out of the cave, the stench of burning wood was still in the air, the boulders were crumbled into rocks, and the trees were split in two. The silence after the dramatic allowed him to really hear the question, “What are you doing here?”
And here we are, millennia later, and God is asking both of you the same question.
I’d like you both to look out at everyone gathered for just a moment. Their presence is an answer to God’s question. They are here because they believe in the impossible possibility of your marriage. They see in you what you have discovered in one another, and it will be through their hopes and dreams and prayers that your promise will be sustained in times of drama and in times of silence.
But at the end of the day, marriage is a mystery. It is like the paradox of being bound together and simultaneously being set free. It is like an empty tomb that stands a stark declaration about the defeated power of death. It is like the labyrinth in which we stand. It’s only something we can figure out while we figure it out.
Marriage is like the mystery of new worlds joining together.
So, my friends, it is my hope and prayer that you two recognize how profoundly mysterious your marriage will be, that you will cherish the moments of deep silence, and that you rejoice in the strange new worlds you are bringing to each other, and the strange new world that God has brought to you. Amen.
Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
On Saturday evening I will stand in front of Alex Chatfield and Brianna Gays in order to join them together in what we call “holy matrimony.” Months of planning will come to fruition in their wedding vows as they stare lovingly and longingly into one another’s eyes in front of friends, family, and the Lord. And I will have the best seat in the house (though I won’t be sitting and it won’t be inside) because I have the privilege of asking for God’s help to bless and sustain their marriage.
I have known Brianna longer than just about anyone else in my life. Her father and my father went to high school together and Brianna and I were basically raised as siblings. When she was on the homecoming court at a different High School (my school’s rival), I went to support her. When I was ordained, her family was there to worship with the entire Annual Conference. Countless birthday parties, and gatherings, and family vacations have solidified a friendship that really makes us feel like brother and sister.
And on Saturday I get to challenge and charge her with a task far greater than anything she has experienced up to this point in her life; I will require and charge her (and Alex) to love one another knowing full and well that they are each marrying the wrong person.
Now to be clear: they are not marrying the wrong person because there’s something wrong with their relationship. They are each marrying the wrong person because they (and we) never really know another person in such a way that we can call a marriage “right.” They will promise to love and to cherish one another without knowing what their lives will look like in five years, or even what they will look like in five years. And they will do all of this under the auspices of “love.”
But what is love? Or, at the very least, what is the kind of love that sustains something like a marriage? Is love about attraction and aesthetics? Is love about commitment and loyalty? What is love?
Love, like marriage, is a mystery.
Paul writes a lot about love, and more often than not the “love” Paul talks about has nothing to do with the Hallmark version of love that most of us are familiar with. Love, according to Paul, does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, according to Paul, is the fulfilling of the law.
What Alex and Brianna will promise to one another on Saturday night is really no different than what all Christians promise one another. As Christians we make covenants (through baptism) to love one another knowing full and well that we don’t really know one another.
And I believe that Alex and Brianna can, and will, do so faithfully, just as Christians can, not because of any power on their own part, but because God empowers them and us to do some wonderful and strange and remarkable things in this life; like getting married, like having lasting friendship, and like doing no wrong to our neighbors.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
We were walking along the beach on Monday morning in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina when a young teenage girl kept looking over at us. I had my son Elijah in my arms and my wife Lindsey was standing next to me and we were talking about nothing in particular when the girl shyly walked up to us. Before she opened her mouth I thought maybe she was going to ask us to take her picture, and then for a strange moment I thought she was going to ask to hold Elijah, but then she asked a question, “Excuse me, but do you know who Jesus is?”
In my mind I started to answer the question much like Peter answered: “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.” I thought about scriptural situations to answer the question in as many ways as possible, I thought about famous images of Jesus that I could describe from memory, and I did all of this in my mind before I realized that she was trying to evangelize us.
So, all I said was: “Yeah, I know Jesus. I’m a United Methodist Pastor.” And at that moment I noticed the girl’s father standing off to the side as if to make sure she was doing it the right way. Upon hearing my answer, he walked up to introduce himself as a Nazarene preacher and we had a brief conversation about seminaries and church work.
But as they walked away to find their next victim, all I could think about was what would have happened if I had answered the question differently; what would she have said if my answer was simply, “No”?
Beach evangelism, walking up to a stranger with a question about Jesus, is not a new thing. For decades Christians have used it and other forms as tools to get people “saved.” But simply asking about Jesus as a means to talk about Jesus often results in shallow connections whereas Jesus commanded the disciples to share the good news in such a way that it resulted in the formation of friendships and communities. Or to put it another way: asking about Jesus in order to make disciples is different than living like Jesus so that others will be formed into disciples.
Peter was only able to answer Jesus question after spending years with him ministering to the crowds. Sometimes sharing the good news with other people takes years of living alongside them without trying to insert our faith into their schedules. I know God can work miracles through Christians approaching strangers on the beach, I know that those questions can be the seed that changes someone’s life, but I know that intentionally spending time with others over the long term will do far more for the kingdom than approaching people on the beach that we will never see again.
Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.
It is such a blessing to work for a church with a preschool because I get to interact with children who are beginning to learn about God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This takes place weekly during chapel time in the sanctuary as I help to share stories from the bible with the kids, and it also takes place on special occasions like when we celebrate communion together and when we talk about the waters of baptism. Our preschool represents a great diversity of families and religious convictions (including a few kids whose mother or father is the pastor of a different church) so I have to make sure that whenever we talk about scripture I’m not doing it in such a way that it will undermine what a child has been taught at his/her home church.
Over the last few years we’ve had two brothers attend the preschool whose mother is the pastor of another United Methodist Church in town. Pastor Sarah and I are very close and I’ve greatly enjoyed talking with her boys about the bible because they know it so well (though it has made chapel time sessions a challenge since they are forever answering the questions before the other kids get a chance). Her boys, Charlie and Jed, are what I hope my son, Elijah, will be like as he grows up.
Months ago I was having a conversation with Sarah at a clergy event when she shared with me that her boys were not baptized as infants and that they had recently decided to commit their lives to Jesus AND that they wanted me to participate in their baptisms. To be asked by another clergy person to take part in her children’s baptism is quite unlike anything I’ve ever been blessed to do in my life.
And so yesterday afternoon, Sarah’s family and friends gathered together with her boys by a river just outside of Staunton for their baptism. I offered a little homily to reflect on how God has already moved in and through their lives and then it was time to go to the water. The river was moving at a good pace and was so cold that I was worried if the boys slowly walked out into the water they would have high-tailed it in the other direction, so one-by-one I carried Sarah’s sons over the water and together she and I baptized them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
For what it’s worth: the Spirit got a hold of them real quick and they were both screaming as they came out of the water!
Being there are the water’s edge, and then in the middle of the river for the baptism, was one of the holiest experiences I’ve had in a long time. And when I looked at Jed and Charlie, when I saw their utter dedication to what they were about to do (even with the water as cold as it was), and I was reminded of Psalm 31.5: “Into your hand I commit my spirit.” Jed and Charlie made a choice yesterday afternoon to offer their lives to Christ, something that most of us have done whether we made the choice or someone made it for us. And today I am grateful that I was there to participate because their faithfulness has challenged me to be more faithful like them.
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
On the day of the funeral, everything felt too familiar. The pews were filling up with the same people who were here the week before, the same family was waiting in the narthex, and our organist was even playing some of the same music as people were walking in.
I stood right here in front of the gathered congregation and asked everyone to stand for the family. Leading the profession were two daughters who were about to bury their father after burying their mother the week before. Their grief and pain and anger were palpable as they slowly walking down the center aisle, and everyone watched them as they passed.
And we did what we do for a service of death and resurrection. We prayed. We opened up the hymnals and proclaimed God’s faithfulness through song. We listened. We grieved. We cried.
As we finished, I watched the pallbearers stand up and surround the coffin. With hands shaking in nervousness and fear they carried their friend’s body out of the church and put him in the hearse.
And we did what we do when travel to a cemetery. We got in our cars and turned on our hazard lights. We followed one another through the streets of Staunton. We watched cars slow down and pull over out of respect for what we were doing. We drove. We listened. We grieved. We cried.
After arriving at the cemetery, I watched the same pallbearers carry the coffin to the grave over uncertain soil. With sweat perspiring on their foreheads they lowered their friend to the ground and stood beside the family.
And we did what we do by the graveside. We prayed. We listened. We placed dirt on the coffin. We said what we needed to say. We listened. We grieved. We cried.
After the final “Amen” I waited by the grave with a few others, making sure the family was comforted. I overheard familiar and charming anecdotes about the man we just gathered to bury. I witnessed family members reach out to one another for the first time in many years. I saw a lot of tissues filled with tears wadded up in clenched fists.
And then I saw something I’ll never forget. A man, unknown to me, walked right over to one of the daughters devastated by the loss of both her parents. He placed his hand on her shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle.” And with that he turned around and walked away.
God won’t give you more than you can handle.
I’m sure that all of us here have heard this statement, or some form of it, in our lives. It is part of that trite and cliché Christian-lingo that we use to fill uncomfortable silences when we don’t know what else to say. And it’s not true.
Let’s start with the beginning: God won’t give you… We’ve talked about it with every sermon of this series so far; God doesn’t give us our sufferings. God is not some sadist who delights in our trials and tribulations. God is not some architect of divine destruction. God is not sitting up in heaven plotting away about what terrible things to send for us to handle.
Can you imagine going to a devastated neighborhood in Chicago to families whose sons have been killed by gunfire and saying, “Don’t worry God won’t give you more than you can handle”?
Can you imagine going to a young mother recently diagnosed with breast cancer and saying, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle”?
Can you imagine going to the millions of people in this country who are terrified of losing their healthcare coverage in the next few months and saying, “Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle?”
God did not kill those families’ sons, God did not give that woman breast cancer, and God is not responsible for the arguments about whether or not to eradicate the Affordable Care Act.
Sometimes, we say things like “God won’t give you more than you can handle” because we don’t know what else to say. We encounter the shadow of suffering that is so suffocating we don’t know how to respond. So instead, we will that awful void with awful words. And we make God into a monster.
The problem is that when we use trite and cliché words like the ones we are confronting this morning, we imply that God chooses to make people suffer.
Jesus, God incarnate, had been on the road for a while, going from town to town, synagogue to synagogue, proclaiming the Good News, teaching about the kingdom of God, and healing those on the margins of society. Word about his ministry spread pretty vast, and he returned to Capernaum for a few days, perhaps to rest. But so many people knew where he was that they surrounded his house and Jesus spoke the Word to them.
Some friends heard about what was happening, so they went to their paralyzed friend and carried him on a mat to Jesus. When they could not bring him to the Messiah because of the crowd, they carried him to the roof, dug through the ceiling, and lowered their friend to Jesus. And when Jesus saw the faith of the friends, he looked at the paralytic and said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
What a strange and beautiful story. Friends with such profound faith were willing to carry their friend, and dig through a roof, just so he could encounter the living God.
I often wonder about the tradition of pallbearers at funerals. Did it start of out a practical necessity? Is there strong theological purpose behind it? Is it a unique Christian behavior?
But on the day I buried a husband after burying his wife the week before, the day I saw a man dismissively respond to the daughter’s suffering, I saw the connection between pallbearers, and the friends who carried the paralytic to Jesus.
When we cannot handle what’s happening in our lives, we need people who can carry us, and the ones we love, to Jesus.
We will face adversity in our lives. We will experience hardships. We, or someone we love, may struggle with debilitating depression or suicidal thoughts or grief so heavy it feels like someone is sitting on our chest. We might give in to the temptation of an addiction and lose contact with the people we need most. We may fall into a pit of financial debt that feels impossible to climb out of.
If we are like most human beings, at some point we will absolutely face things that are more than we can handle.
So here’s a corrective. It’s not that God won’t give you more than you can handle, but that God will help you handle all that you’ve been given.
This acknowledges that trials and tribulation will occur in our lives, and it promises that when we go through the muck and grime of life, God will be present.
When we’re walking through hard times, whether they were given to us by the random chance of life, or they’re a result of our own brokenness, or they’re signs of our captivity to the powers and principalities, it’s okay and good to admit, “I can’t handle this by myself, and I need help.” There are times when we need a doctor, or a therapist to carry us. More often, we need family, friends, pastors, neighbors, and brothers and sisters in our church family to come alongside us to carry us through.
God does not give us more than we can handle. God gives us Jesus Christ so that we can handle what life gives us.
For a lot of people, what happened on Friday in Washington DC was more than they could handle. Whether it was the pent up frustration with the political rhetoric that overflowed over the last 18 months, or witnessing a billionaire place his hands on Abraham Lincoln’s bible, or experiencing the great swing of the pendulum from one political ideology to another, it felt overwhelming. Some responded with violent protests and destroyed shop windows and attacked the police. Others responded with peaceful demonstrations making sure their voices were not stomped out among all the shouting debauchery. There were the political talking heads offering their opinions about who was right and who was wrong. There were smug smiles and there were frightening frowns. The inauguration, for some, was more than they could handle.
For others, the last eight years has been more than they could handle. Whether it was the constant feeling like the country was slipping out of their fingers, or the realization that the American dream is not what it once was, or the rise of oppositional and divisive voices, it felt overwhelming. Some responded with protests and boycotts of particular institutions, others responded by focusing inwardly and praying for change, and still yet others waited patiently for a new direction. For eight years there were plenty of talking heads offering their unsolicited opinions about who was right and who was wrong. The last eight years, for some, was more than they could handle.
Some say the time has come for all of us to just get along. A couple weeks ago I even told you that we, as a church, should have a collective New Year’s resolution to be more kind.
Kindness and getting along are good and nice. But there are people around us, people in our lives, who need more than kindness and getting along. There are people desperately clinging to the hope of their healthcare coverage completely unsure of what it about to happen. There are people who are hopeless when confronting their joblessness and economic futures. There are people shaking and quaking about their faith and whether or not they are going to be forced to register themselves because they wear a particular piece of cloth on their heads. There are people who see police officers as enemies and not community protectors.
There are people in our community; there are people in our church, who have more than they can handle right now.
We need people, like the friends who carried the paralytic to Jesus, to carry others who have more than they can handle. We need people who can look us in the eye and tell us we have a problem. We need people who will call their friends every night just to get them through a profound period of loss. We need people like all the women who marched in solidarity all across the world yesterday. We need people with eyes wide open to the horrible suffering of the people around us so that it does not go on unnoticed. We need people who are unafraid of the consequences for questioning the status quo. Right now, we need people who are brave enough to carry us to Jesus. Amen.
Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.
When was the last time you were really nervous? Can you remember being called to the front of the class as a child and the anxiety that poured on you like a wave when it was your turn to speak? Was it at your wedding when you saw your spouse standing next to you at the altar? Was it the moment you found out that you were going to become a parent for the first time? Was it the time you were called into your boss’ office and didn’t know whether you’d still have a job at the end of the meeting? At the heart of my vocation is a call to stand before the gathered congregation and proclaim words about the Lord. And, even after doing this for a number of years, I am thankful for a large pulpit that covers up my nervous ticks when I’m preaching.
This Sunday, my best friend (and the best man at my wedding) will be in town with his family and will worship at St. John’s. We became fast friends while in seminary and he is, without a doubt, one of the greatest preachers I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. And to be perfectly honest, I am really nervous about leading worship and preaching in front of him on Sunday. Perhaps its because I know how gifted he is, or because we are so close that I really respect his opinion, or maybe it’s the conflation of having not preached for a month because of the birth of my son. Whatever the reason, I am nervous about Sunday.
However, nerves can be a gift. If you’re anything like me, being nervous often brings out some of my best work. When the deadline approaches, and my anxiety jumps up a few notches, my focus becomes clearer and I am more articulate. As I am placed in a situation that makes me nervous I respond from the heart, rather than stewing about it for a prolonged period of time and answering from my mind.
Sometimes we need to feel nervous before the Lord. Not necessarily every Sunday in worship, or every time we open our bibles, but we do need to have experiences when we “tremble before him.” We often sugarcoat church and worship to make it as appealing as possible with messages about how loved we are. And, even though those types of Christian experiences are important, we also need to have them balanced with conviction. We need close friends who can challenge us to be better than we are. We need churches that challenge our sense of the status quo and push us to be more like Jesus. We need experiences of God that leave us trembling so that we remember that God is God, and we are not.
2 Samuel 1.17-27
David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (He ordered that the Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said: Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen! Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon; or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice, the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult. You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields! For there the shield of the mighty was defiled, the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more. From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan did not turn back, nor the sword of Saul return empty. Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions. O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel. How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle! Jonathan lies slain upon you high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. How the mighty have fallen, the weapons of war perished!
Funerals are strange, difficult, and at times, beautiful. I usually receive the phone call from someone in the family, or from a funeral home, that someone has died and they were hoping that I would preside over the service. No matter who the person is, I am immediately filled with sadness knowing that someone, anyone, is now gone. Regardless of my personal connection to the individual, there is a sense of loss that comes with death and not even I can avoid it.
But then I have to get to work. I have to take that grief and hold it for a moment while I help others properly grieve their loss. I have to balance the proper amount of mourning with hope, sadness with peace, and death with resurrection.
When I receive that first phone call I have to start taking care of the logistics: Where will the funeral take place and when? Do they want someone to play the organ? Are they hoping for a particular soloist? Does anyone from the family want to speak on behalf of the dead? And only after the plans are made can we begin talking about the person, making sure that I know everything I can in order to properly proclaim their life, death, and resurrection.
Most of the time funerals take place in the middle of the day in the middle of the week. Friends and family have to take time off from work, or take their children out of school, in order to attend the service. Yet, funerals are not meant for immediate friends and family alone. The entire community of faith is called to witness to the life of those who have died so that we can continue to live out their witness regardless of how well we knew them, or not.
So, this morning, as I mentioned before, we are doing something a little different. A few weeks ago one of our church members named Dick Dickerson passed away. He had only been coming for a few years, but he was a staple in worship. He always sat in the back of the church on the right side, he flirted with every female that crossed his path, and he was incredibly sweet.
When I found out that his family would be having a private service in Kentucky at a later date I knew that we still needed to do something here in order to say goodbye. I knew that we needed to praise God for putting Dick in our lives. And I knew that we were going to have our own little funeral for him on a Sunday morning.
Dick Dickerson called me “honey.” I know that this might’ve bothered other young pastors, but to me it was endearing and precious. I would walk over to visit Dick next door at Brightview/Baldwin Park and the moment I entered his room he would always say something like “Come on honey and sit down with me.” For months I cherished this identification, it made me feel special that Dick felt so connected to me. It was only later that I learned he called most of the people in his life “honey”!
My wife Lindsey would stop by to say hello before a church service started and he would hug her while calling her “honey,” Grace Daughtrey would smile and politely nod her head as he greeted her with a “good morning honey,” and even Marshall Kirby would start to blush when Dick would refer to his Sunday driver as “honey.”
Dick Dickerson was a man of profound love, who deeply appreciated all that God had given him from the very beginning till the very end.
Dick grew up in Kentucky with a family in the midst of financial struggles. Living through the depression was, as he put it, one of the hardest things to witness. But at some point there was a family in the community who saw Dick’s potential, and they brought him under their wing and helped to provide for his education. He always maintained a connection with his biological family, but in his quasi-adoptive family he saw the Christian commitment to loving others, something that would affect the rest of his life.
Dick was a man of stories, stories that shaped his life and the lives of others. When he served as a quartermaster in Patton’s army during World War II he used to offer whisky to his fellow soldiers so long as they affirmed the beliefs of the Republican party. He told me that at the beginning of the war most of his friends were Democrats, but by the time they got home (and enjoyed the whisky) they had become staunch conservatives!
He, unlike others who served in World War 2, was ready and willing to share reflections on his experiences precisely because he did not want anyone to have to experience what he did. He often told a story about an evening that took place in the middle of the war on Christmas Eve when he found himself resting for the night in a bombed out church building. He could remember the wax dripping from the candles, the hole in the roof letting in the tiniest of snowflakes, and all the soldiers huddling together for warmth.
He asked a question of the men that night that he only later attributed to the Holy Spirit. He asked if the men wanted to pray for anything. One soldier prayed for his family back home, another prayed for warmer weather, but one of the youngest said something that would stay with Dick the rest of his life: “I seem to remember Jesus saying something about praying for our enemies, so tonight I would like to pray for the men we’re fighting against. I pray that God would be with them as He is with us.” Dick said that while other men might have grown angry or dismissed the prayer, all of the men joined together in that tiny church on Christmas eve, and prayed for their enemies.
Prayer was at the heart of Dick Dickerson’ life. He spent most of his free time going through a list of people that he lifted up to the Lord and regularly invited me to join him in his prayers. He once told me that prayer was the only thing that got him through the war, and that prayer was the only thing that kept him together once he returned home.
Dick lived a wonderful and blessed life. He married his sweetheart Mildred, had two children, and eventually began working for Madison College in Harrisonburg. Dr. Dickerson, as he was known to his students, made himself available to everyone all all times because he saw the value in other people. Whether in the classroom or at home, you knew that he would make time for you no matter what.
I spent a lot of time with Dick over the last two years, we talked about a great number of things, but the one thing we talked about the most was death. In fact during our very first and our very last conversations he said the same thing to me: “Honey, I’m ready to die.”
In the beginning of 2 Samuel we have a song that David wrote in memory of Saul and Jonathan. After giving their lives for the Lord and the people, David called the nation to weep for their loss: “O how the mighty have fallen.” In life David and Saul were seemingly opposed, but in the experience their death David wept and mourned.
Many of us take the people in our lives for granted. We grow so accustom to their presence and persistence, that we rarely think about what life would be like without them. It is only when someone is truly gone that we can really appreciate what they always meant to us. It happened to David after Saul died. It happened to the disciples during those three days before Jesus rose again. And it has happened to me with nearly every person that I have buried while I have served this church.
But friends, resurrection comes into its fullest meaning when we lose someone we love.
Can you imagine the exultation the disciples experienced when they saw their Lord again after he broke free from the chains of death? Can you picture the joy on their faces when they were able to sit again with their teacher and friend? Can you imagine how David would have felt if he knew that one day someone from his family tree would eventually hang in a tree for the sins of the world so that we could all rise again in the resurrection?
Dick Dickerson was ready to die because he trusted the Lord. His trust was evident in our many conversations, and in is interactions with others, but it was most present while he prayed at this altar.
Dick rarely missed a communion Sunday. Even while his bone cancer was spreading throughout his body, he would make the long and slow journey to the front of this sanctuary to pray on his knees to the Lord. After feasting on the body and the blood, Dick would lay all the worries of his life out for the Lord, he would pray for God’s forgiveness over his sins, and he would thank the Almighty for surrounding him at every moment throughout his blessed life.
Are we ready to die? Every death in this church community is a constant reminder that the bell will toll for us all, and that tomorrow is never guaranteed. Are we ready to die? What kind of faith would it take to be ready to give our lives over to the Lord?
Dick Dickerson certainly had that kind of faith, a faith born out of prayer, presence, and praise, a kind of faith shaped by World War 2, and a kind of faith made real through the witness of Christ’s church.
As we prepare to take steps toward this altar, to feast at Christ’s table, we do well to remember all who have gone before us to eat and pray. We remember Dick Dickerson and his willingness to lift us up. We remember the saints before us, in our midst, and those who will come after and discover God’s grace in a moment like this. And we remember that Jesus came to die so that we would all live, so that death would be defeated, so that the resurrection would be offered to us all.
So, thanks be to God for the great gift at this table and for the life of Dick Dickerson, a man who lived by faith, prayed with every fiber of his being, and was ready to die. Amen.