Ready To Die – Sermon on 2 Samuel 1.17-27

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!

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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

Dick Dickerson

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.

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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.

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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.

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

1 John 3.16-24

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

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

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

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Dear St. John’s,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If love is real, there is no “why?”

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

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

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

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

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

Devotional – John 10.16

Devotional:

John 10.16

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.  

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“What is the greatest challenge ahead for you?” This question is asked on a regular basis between myself and a number of clergy colleagues who live in the same community. Whether we are meeting for a cup of coffee, bumping into one another at a grocery store, or during an assigned clergy gathering, this question has helped us to grow as pastoral leaders and offer advice to our friends.

When I arrived at my current appointment, I assumed that other pastors would reach out and welcome me to the community. For the first few months I waited and waited and heard nothing. So one afternoon I pulled out a map and decided to visit all of the nearby churches and introduce myself as the new United Methodist pastor at St. John’s. I will never forget the look of shock on a number of pastors faces when I showed up at the door with my hand outstretched; for some of them I was the first pastor they met in our community even though many of them had been here for a number of years.

At the foundation of the United Methodist Church is our connectional system. By way of polity, and theology, we are (supposed to be) intimately connected with our brother and sister churches. We rely on one another for kingdom work and sharing resources to better live out God’s will on earth. However we also have a responsibility to connect with other churches outside of our denomination. After all, there is one true shepherd and we are all part of his one flock.

Over the last two years I have formed strong bonds with other clergy in Staunton and I believe that our willingness to grow in faith with one another has been a blessing to the greater community. Every church is different and faces unique challenges. Yet, when we spend time working with other leaders it allows us to learn and glean from one another, rather than trying to do it all on our own.

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Jesus told the disciples there were other sheep that did not belong to that particular fold, but there would be one flock and one shepherd. Today, many communities are peppered with varying churches and denominations representing a number of traditions. If we cannot learn to work with, and appreciate, one another then we are preventing the Church from being led by the Good Shepherd. If churches continue to view others as competition, rather than brothers and sisters, then the Church will continue to decline and no longer bear fruit in the world.

We are in this great and cosmic thing called discipleship together. We can learn from other traditions and denominations because we are all part of God’s flock and Jesus, as the shepherd, will always be here for the sheep. This week, let us challenge ourselves to really see fellow Christians as Christians, instead of seeing them as Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans, Episcopalians, etc. Let us learn to ask good and important questions so that we might all grow in faithfulness together.

 

Washing With Tears – Maundy Thursday Homily on John 13.12-20

John 13.12-20

After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who are my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.”

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The disciples had already finished their food, they had passed around the bread and the cup, and Jesus had told them it was his body and blood. For many of them these words might’ve gone in one ear and out the other; after all Jesus was known for saying all sorts of the things that didn’t make sense right away. Perhaps some of them were picking up the crumbs from the bread when Jesus got up from the table. Others might have been refilling their cups with wine when Jesus tied a towel around his waist. But by the time he started to wash their feet the room must have been silent. 

Imagine how profound it would have been to see Jesus kneeling on the floor and using water to wash away the grime of Jerusalem. Even more amazing is the fact that Jesus doesn’t waste time explaining what he’s about to do, he just gets down on the ground and goes to work.

However, Peter, the ever vocal disciple interrupts the serene mood with a question: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?

“Right now it won’t make sense my friend, but soon it will all come together. If you want to be in this with me, you must let me wash your feet.”

Jesus went from one disciple to the next taking as much time as necessary, holding their feet in his hands, letting the water drip upon them, until he finished.

I took a group of middle-schoolers on a mission trip a number of years ago to Winchester, Virginia. We worked in trailer parks building wooden steps up to the doors, we worked on a wheel chair ramp that took up an entire yard, and we worked on clearing out areas that had been long forgotten. All week we did everything we could to serve the needs of the people from the nearby community, and every night we gathered to sing songs and praise our Lord.

At the end of the week we were invited into the fellowship hall for a foot-washing ceremony. I don’t know if any of you have had the chance to spend a week working outside with middle-schoolers, but it begins to smell pretty bad pretty fast; the prospect of washing one another’s feet was not high on my list of priorities. The leader explained that long ago Jesus washed his disciples feet and we would be doing the same thing. Everyone was invited to participate, but if you were uncomfortable you could simply ask for a prayer instead.

A few chairs and basins were set in the middle of the space, and when the music began we were on our own.

In my work group there was a precious young girl who had worked so incredibly hard all week and there was a young boy that annoyed her every chance he had. He would begin by playfully flicking paint onto her clothes, but when she asked him to stop he became relentless. He called her names behind her back, and schemed to turn the other kids against her. Even after I pulled him aside to set him straight he continued to prey on her at every opportunity. 

As we sat in the room waiting for the first people to go forward for the foot washing, I watched the young girl stand up, and bee-line across the room for the annoying boy. For a fleeting moment I was afraid that she had finally had too much and she was about to sock him in the face, but instead she leaned over and asked if she could wash his feet.

While other people started to do the same, my gaze was transfixed on the boy and girl from my group. The boy had gone over the line time and time again yet there she was holding his foot in her hand and washing it. When I looked closer I saw that she was crying and her tears were falling on his feet. And when I looked even closer I saw that he was crying and his tears were falling in her hair.

Foot washing is a service among equals in a company where no one’s status stands out. When Jesus finished with his friends, he called them to do the same to one another. We wash and are washed by our Lord through our brothers and sisters in Christ. When we kneel before a fellow Christian and hold their feet in our hands we make our way back to the upper room so long ago. We aren’t just called to wash the feet of those whom we love, but even the ones who drive us crazy and fill us with anger. Remember: Jesus washed Judas’ feet knowing full and well what he was about to do. 

Sometimes the people we need to reconcile with most are the ones in the pews next to us. We tend to sweep under the rug all of the proverbial problems we have with our friends and family and are far more inclined to complain about strangers. If we are filled with stress regarding the closest people in our lives than this might be the best place to embark on a new beginning. Perhaps the water can bring new life for us and for the ones we love and hate.

Jesus took time after breaking bread with his friends to wash their feet. He humbled himself to the floor and showed them what faithful love looks like. With each foot he equipped them for bringing the peace of God into the world. He washed away their insufficiencies and doubts. He rid them of labels and assumptions. He showed them how important they were for the kingdom of God.

If you want to know what faithful love looks like, look no further than this time when we follow the example of Jesus and wash one another. Amen.

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You Cannot Save Yourself – Sermon on Ephesians 2.1-10

Ephesians 2.1-10

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

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Our series on “Back to the Basics” continues this morning by looking at the topic of salvation. We started this series in light of the fact that many of us are deeply rooted in our faith, but some of the basics have perhaps become so routined that we no longer understand what they mean. We began with a call to return to the basics, then we looked at the Ten Commandments and today we are talking about salvation. Here we go.

My friend Josh loved the Christian camp. Every summer he looked forward to returning to the familiar space with young people all growing in their faith. From tubing on the lake, to hiking around the compound, and even just praying at night with his friends, the camp was a place unlike any other; at camp he could be fully Christian without the world judging him for his discipleship.

By the time I met Josh, camp was long in the past though he remembered most of it fondly. Having never gone to a specifically Christian camp I was fascinated by the idea of being immersed in an intentional faith community with other young people and I regularly asked him questions about his experiences. After all, it was at camp where he met his future wife, and it was years later that he made a scavenger hunt at the camp in order to propose.

As a young Christian my faith was largely formed and nurtured by my home church. I was blessed to grow up around a number of people who took their commitment to raising me in the faith seriously. Josh, however, learned a lot about what it meant to be Christian from the counselors at camp, which, like many things, can be a blessing and a curse.

The young adult counselors embodied how you could still be cool and Christian. They made faith so appealing because they regularly demonstrated what God had done for them in their lives. They made efforts to make faith approachable and were able to share the love of God with campers every summer.

Yet, some of them deeply believed it was their chief responsibility to save others and did whatever they could to make that happen.

It would come at the end of an incredible week of building new relationships and ideas when one of the counselors who begin talking about the Roman Road and I imagine it went something like this:

“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior? Your life might feel pretty good right now, you might have a kind family and some nice friends, but what about your eternal life? Do you want to spend life after death burning in the fires of hell? Or do you want to be saved?

“Imagine that you are standing on the edge of a cliff. Being a good person isn’t enough to save you. You can see salvation on the other side of the divide, but the only way you can get there is through Jesus Christ. Try to picture the cross being a bridge for you to safely get to the other side. You have the power to decide your everlasting fate. What’s it going to be?”

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When Josh explained these experiences to me I could sense the amount of manipulation that went into the dialogues. As the summers passed at camp, the conversations remained the same only the stakes became higher: What are you doing to save the people around you? Have you explained the Roman Road to your friends?

My friends, we are now alive though we were dead. Until the great gift of God in Jesus Christ we existed like lifeless bodies wandering around. Part of this came to be because we were guilty of sinfulness though we were also victims of our environment – people and organizations who told us we can save ourselves. But God, rich in mercy, saved us.

In the early church they did not spend their time going around trying to convince people with the Roman Road argument. They did not waste time going through the in and outs of theological proofs of Christ’s divinity and resurrection. Instead the church pointed at itself to prove the miracle. Want to know about death, the cross, and the resurrection? Here they are.

The budding Christian community grew not because it’s leaders were particularly articulate in their ability to save others through words, but because they believed in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. With the new family that was created in community they experienced a new kind of life with God at the core, a new opportunity that came with the Spirit.

While the early disciples went throughout their surrounding regions, their cries of evangelism did not begin with “Save yourselves!” Instead they, like Ephesians, triumphantly declared, “God saved you, come live your new life!

If we are anything we are a people of resurrection. Not a country club of like-minded individuals, not a political organization, not a club of devoted fans, but a people of resurrection.

Since the time of Christ, those who followed him have found new life, resurrected life, with God. New life has come by many ways – repenting for the wrongs of our lives, being forgiven by God and our friends, experiencing an assurance of the eternal dimension of God’s love and care, and by a number of other life events, even hearing about the Roman Road from camp counselors. However, we must be careful when putting too much emphasis on our power in salvation. Yes, God has opened the door and we must be the ones to walk through it, but the greater act came in the opening of the door and not our power to go through it.

Resurrected life is something that will come when Jesus returns but we can also experience it here and now. Whenever I’m asked about miracles I can quickly describe some of the incredible things I have witnessed, events I attribute to God’s grace. But some of the most powerful miracles, to me, are right here in our midst. I can look out from this pulpit and see people’s lives who have been turned around through Christ’s love. I see and remember stories about things that have happened to you, sinful desires that suffocated your ability to live fully, when God offered you a new resurrected life.

I heard someone once describe their days as lifeless. They went through the familiar motions but it all felt repetitious, pointless, and directionless. This went on and on until someone invited them to a church community. Suddenly people began to care about him without knowing anything about him or his past. It was like he was being seen and treated through God’s perspective. Through a simple invitation and a new opportunity he felt resurrected from the dead, and began living again. 

Salvation is not about receiving a perfect grade that allows us to make the cut into God’s heavenly kingdom. Who among us fulfills all of the laws from the Old and New Testaments? Loving our enemies, turning the other cheek, giving away our possessions? Even the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor with our hearts, souls, minds, and strengths is incredibly difficult.

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If salvation was about getting the right grade, I’m sad to say that most of us would be failing. It’s as if the closer we get to visions of God’s glory, the more we realize our unholiness.

We pray to God before our meals and while we look out on the feast before us we are reminded of the many who have no food to eat. We kneel in a makeshift structure in Guatemala being served food by people who have nothing in terms of our materiality but have faith that we could never imagine. We sit on the stoops of a front porch in West Virginia after painting all day and we realize we could be doing so much more.

We were dead through the sins of our lives and we have been victims of our environment. The good news amidst this unholiness is that, by the grace of God, we have been saved. That through God’s incredible act of selflessness, our sinfulness has been forgiven.

Not a forgiveness as a nice plus added to a grade for our performance as Christians, but forgiveness as a completely unearned gift – a gift extended to a prodigal son who squandered his inheritance, a gift extended to a tax collector who only cared about himself, a gift extended to a thief who hung on a cross to die, a gift extended to you, or to me.

By grace we have been saved. 

Grace is like friendship. Josh, the one who shared with me his experiences of Christian camp, is my best friend and was the best man at my wedding. I did nothing to earn his friendship.  If it had been initiated over an exchange of goods (I will be your friend if you do this for me) it would never have become the true friendship that it is today. Friendship, and I mean true friendship, is an act of faith. Learning to trust the other knowing that they could hurt you.

I know that Josh will be there for me at a moment’s notice. He will listen to me and do whatever he can to help. I also know that he doesn’t expect anything in return. That is the meaning of true friendship; a willingness to give because the well-being of someone else matters more to you than your own. My friendship with Josh is an act of faith, but one that I am remarkably thankful for.

Salvation, for us, is the beginning of a covenant of friendship between us and God; between the divine and a sinner. Grace is another way of describing an incredible love story between God and his creation.

We cannot save ourselves. We cannot save other people. No matter what the commercials, advertisements, and camp counselors tell us. Only the Lord has the power to save. Thanks be to God that he came in the form of flesh in Jesus Christ to open up the gates of heaven to people like us.Thanks be to God that we are not called to save others, but merely help them to see what God has already done, and continues to do, in their lives.

We were dead but have been made alive through the greatest gift ever given. The question for us, then, should not be, “Am I saved?” Instead we should be asking, “What am I doing with this resurrected life?

Amen.

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Devotional – Psalm 139.4

Devotional:

Psalm 139.4

Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. 

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I was in the middle of wrapping Christmas presents when my cell phone began to ring. My fingers were covered in tape and I fumbled with answering the phone while keeping the paper pulled tight over the box. Frankly, I’m not a very good wrapper, so I welcomed the distraction of the call with hopes that it would somehow result in me taking enough time away that I would return with perfect wrapping capabilities. The season of Advent and Christmas can be very lonely for pastors as they seek to serve the needs of others so I was greatly pleased when I saw that my friend, and best man, was calling me out of the blue.

Josh and I met in seminary, and when we graduated he went out to Wichita, KS to work for the Apprentice Institute at Friends University while I became a pastor in the UMC. Josh and his wife recently welcomed their first daughter into the world (Isla Rose) and I specifically tried to not overburden him with phone calls and video-chats, even though I wanted to hear and see everything about his family and time as a father. I have known for a long time that he would be a great Dad and I was excited to hear about how things were going for him when he called. However, the phone conversation focused on a topic of conversation that I was not necessarily prepared for.

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We spent the first few minutes catching up about the typical things when Josh’s tone suddenly changed and I knew he was calling for a specific reason. Instead of piling up the preliminary excuses and attempting to justify his decision he put it simply: “I am leaving my work with Apprentice, and going to work in the secular world.” At first I was completely shocked; Josh is one of the greatest disciples I have ever met, he ministered to me while we were in school together, and he would no longer be working for the church. He shared with me his reasons (all valid) and my shock quickly changed to compassion. He told me that he had been wrestling with the decision for a long time but was afraid to share it with me. He was worried that I would be disappointed or react in such a way that it would change our friendship.

I am disappointed that the Church has lost such a great and promising leader, but at the same time I recognize that the Spirit moves in mysterious ways and perhaps Josh can now be even more fruitful for the kingdom of God. I believe that God has moved in Josh’s life for this specific change and it will bring glory to the triune God here on earth. My only wish is that Josh would not have feared about my reaction, and would have known that nothing could change our friendship.

God knows our words and thoughts even before they are on our tongues and minds. God’s love remains steadfast toward us regardless of our decisions and actions. Can you imagine how differently we would interact with others if we trusted them the same way that we trust God? Can you picture what that kind of love and forgiveness would look like in your life?

This week, let us show our friends how much we love them. All it might take is a phone call, an email, or a text message, but it could make all the difference in the world.

Devotional – John 14.18-19

Devotional:

John 14.18-19

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. 

Weekly Devotional Image

Two of my favorite people in the world made the choice to adopt two Guatemalan boys and raise them as their own. I don’t know a lot about the conversations and planning that took place before both of the adoptions, but I do know that they would tell you it was the best decision they ever made. Gabriel and Alexander are two of the finest young men that I have the privilege of calling my friends; Jason and Ali (their parents) are responsible for their strong and dynamic character. Whenever I travel home to Alexandria I make a point of stopping by their house just to catch up with the boys and have my mind blown by how much they have grown and changed.

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When Jason and Ali first brought each of the boys home they had to make the deliberate effort to spend as much time as possible with the boys. Though only children, the parents could sense that they were afraid of being let go and sent somewhere else. Without the mental faculty to fully grasp the depth of their adoption, they could experience the fear of being abandoned. For many nights Ali and Jason would stay with their boys in their rooms just so they would know that they were loved, that they were known, and that they would never be abandoned. I love those two boys more than I can describe. I love their parents more than I can describe. (Jason presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding ceremony; Gabriel was our ring-bearer; Alexander did the Old Testament reading)

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Before Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection he assured his disciples that he would not leave them orphaned. Even though he knew he would have to leave them, the Holy Spirit would be poured out to never leave them. Much like Jason and Ali staying with their boys night after night, God in Christ has not left us to be orphaned. Our Father is with us so that we can know we are loved, that we are known, and that we will not be abandoned.

The call of all Christians is to combat the plague of loneliness in the world. It is through many of our actions that God’s love is manifest in the world so that people may know what it means to come within God’s loving embrace. Do you know someone who feels abandoned right now? Have you noticed anyone retreating into their own isolation? Our challenge today is to reach out to those who feel orphaned and help them to see God’s presence in their lives.