On Sitting At The Reject Table – Luke 14:1, 7-14

Luke 14.1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friend or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

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Throughout the gospels, people are forever asking Jesus about the kingdom of heaven. What does it take to get in? Who will be there? When will it happen?

And whenever Jesus is asked about the kingdom of heaven, do you know what he compares it to most often? A wedding feast.

I love weddings. I love getting to spend time with a couple as their special day gets closer and closer. I love working with families in terms of making the wedding ceremony as special and faithful as possible. I love being invited into this profoundly holy moment at the altar of marriage and bringing two people into an everlasting covenant. But more than all of that, I love weddings because they are as close as we can get to heaven on earth.

During the months leading up to a wedding, while I’m working on pre-marital counseling and the homily and the order of worship, the couple has a lot of work to do as well. They have to procure a reception location, taste test the hors d’oeuvres and the main course, and find the perfect DJ. But perhaps the most difficult and taxing requirements prior to the wedding are the guest list and the seating arrangements.

Nearly every couple I have married has struggled with who to invite and where to seat them. Does that uncle that no one has seen in years warrant an invitation? And what about your cousin’s ex-wife? Maybe we should just send her an invitation to be kind, but if she shows up where can we put her? And where in the world are we going to put the pastor and his wife?

At one wedding, I rushed through the rehearsal under the blistering sun and everyone was remarkably thankful when I stopped talking. Because the wedding was out of town, we were invited to the rehearsal dinner and upon arrival we did not know where to sit. There was clearly an area for the bridal party, so we avoided that table and decided to just sit at a table in the middle of the room. Like an awkward moment in a middle school cafeteria, we waited to see who would sit next to us, but as family members and friends entered the room, the father of the groom stood up to make a speech. He welcomed everyone and thanked the room for supporting his son and soon to be daughter-in-law, and then he pointed over at me. He said, “Now everyone, this is my pastor and the woman sitting next to him is his wife. So all you young men, you need to stay away from her tonight. Because Taylor has the power to send you to heaven, or to hell.” The room erupted in laughter at the joke, and it was pretty funny, but no one, and I mean no one, sat next to us for a long time.

Jesus was once invited to the house of a leader of the Pharisees and was being watched closely. When he arrived he noticed how particular people chose to sit in places of honor and he used the moment to teach about the kingdom of God. “When you get an invitation to a wedding, do not sit in the places of respect and honor. Someone might come up to you who is more distinguished and important and they will take your place. You will then have to disgracefully move to the reject table. Instead go and sit at the reject table from the beginning, so that when the host comes by he may call you to a grander table. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

There is always a strange moment at wedding receptions when all the guests stand in line at a poster or some other Pinterestly designed labeling system for where each of us will be sitting. At another wedding, after preaching and leading the ceremony, we got in line with everyone else to find our names and our corresponding table. As my eyes went down the list, I knew that we literally knew no one at the wedding (except the bride and groom) and I wasn’t hoping for anything special. But when my eyes finally made it to the end of the list, I knew that we were definitely assigned to the reject table.

You know the one, the table where you send the odds and ends, that strange second cousin that you had to invite and you hope he doesn’t get too rowdy, the piano teacher from a decade ago, the weird friend your mother insisted on inviting but who always drove you utterly crazy. That table.

When we made our way to the back of the room, it only took one glance to confirm our suspicions that we were at the reject table because no one was talking and none of the people knew each other. At every other table in the reception area conversations were flowing and laughter was breaking out, but at the reject table it was silent.

In the silence you could almost sense the recognition of our reject status, but the nail on the coffin was when the pastor and his wife pulled out their chairs and sat down. At a wedding, if I sit at your table, you are part of the rejects.

At first we just further perpetuated the silence by sitting there awkwardly fumbling with our cell phones and such, until I decided to break the ice and compliment the camouflage koozie that was keeping a beer cold in the hand of who I can only imagine was a distant cousin. I said something stupid like, “Man, I could barely tell you were even drinking a beer.” At first he didn’t respond, either because the joke wasn’t funny, or because he was unsure of how to speak to a pastor about beer. But when Lindsey laughed at my foolish attempt to be funny, the whole table seemed to take a collective breath and relax.

From that first, albeit strange, compliment a conversation began to percolate and eventually spilled out over the whole table. Within ten minutes we were probably the rowdiest table in the entire room and were regularly being shushed by other guests while the speeches were being made. We didn’t care that we couldn’t see the bride and groom at their table in the front, we didn’t care that we were the very last table to be called to go through the buffet line, we didn’t care that we were the misfits at the reject table. Instead, we were just happy to be there.

From the humility of the reject table we were exalted to the joy of the wedding celebration.

Jesus spoke to the people gathered together to teach them about the virtues of humility. And in telling the parable of the wedding banquet he was not just assigning them to be humble at weddings, but in all aspects of life. To live the kind of selfish and exalted life of the best table is to forget that we depend on God. It is to believe that we are in control of our lives and that we have the power to save ourselves. It is a fundamental lack of trust that the Lord will provide.

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Humility, on the other hand, is an unselfish way of living while depending on the Lord. It is to believe that our lives are not our own and that only God has the power to save us. It is a fundamental trust in the Lord’s ability to provide.

And Jesus does not leave it at that. He pushes the gathered body even further. Whenever you’re invited somewhere, live humbly. And whenever you are the host, do not invite people with the expectation that they will provide the same courtesy. Do not invite your family, and your neighbors, or your rich friends assuming they will do the same. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Invite the people you would otherwise ignore. And you will be blessed precisely because they cannot repay you.

This is a tough commandment for all soon to be married couples. Most of them would never dream of omitting an invitation to family members, and friends, and rich relatives who give the best wedding gifts. They would never dream of inviting strangers and outcasts and rejects to their wedding feast and celebration.

But the marriage of Christ with Christ’s church is a wedding celebration that all of us have been invited to. We are here in the midst of worship: the wedding of God with God’s people, and none of us should have been invited. We can never repay the kindness of God’s invitation, we are unworthy of sitting in these pews, we fail to be obedient to the kind of love that we experience here. And yet we are invited. And frankly, we are all sitting at the reject table.

Jesus Christ invites us to this place to celebrate the great victory over death, the resurrection of glory, and the reconciliation of all things. And that’s different than just being included. Many churches love to claim and proclaim their inclusiveness. Inclusive has become such a buzzword in Christianity that you will find it on nearly every church website and every church bulletin you come across. We so desperately want to appear welcoming and inclusive with the hope that it will draw people into our wedding celebration called the church.

But being inclusive is lazy. Because being inclusive does not require us to do anything but sit here, stare at the doors, and hope people will show up.

            Jesus did not lead an inclusive ministry.

            What Jesus led was a ministry of invitation.

Much like being invited to a modern wedding celebration, Jesus actively went out seeking others to draw them into the party. He met them where they were and invited them to join him on the way that leads to life. His ministry was about breaking down the labels and constructs that people were isolated into, and gathering all of the so called rejects together to celebrate the glory of God.

Our Lord invites all without expectation and without assumption. God Almighty knows our sin and our failures and still sees potential. The Lord meets us where we are through the words of our worship and through our friendships. The great story of scripture, from this passage in Luke to the entire narrative, is not about God waiting for us to show up, but God’s great work to find and transform us.

Sitting at the reject table comes at a cost. It means being surrounded by people we do not know, people we probably don’t agree with, and people who might drive us crazy. It requires a tremendous amount of humility and trust and faith. But it’s also the way we got invited to this party. Amen.

 

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On Evangelism or: Why The Church Needs Crucifixion

Matthew 28.19 – Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Evangelism

We sent out hundreds of post-cards over a month ago inviting the entire neighborhood to join us on the front lawn of the church for a free Community Cook-Out. The post-cards were well designed and inviting with all of the necessary information. For a modest price we were able to reach a whole group of people who we would otherwise miss.

This will be our third annual gathering and it has been largely successful. Half of the people in attendance are usually not from the church and we want them to know that we care about the neighborhood we are in. However, on some level, we also want them to know that we love them enough that we would love to have them join us in worship on Sunday mornings.

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Yet, evangelism is not the goal of our gathering. We have not specifically identified key lay people to go around asking people if Jesus Christ is their personal Lord and Savior. We have not prepared pamphlets to hand out describing the eternal fires of hell if someone does not get saved. We have not invited the neighborhood to our front lawn to get them into heaven.

Instead, we hope that by showing them our love, it will somehow draw them into church to discover where that love comes from: God.

Next week we are going to send out even more post-cards to the local community about our upcoming sermon series titled “Confronting Controversy.” After speaking with a few nominal Christians from the neighborhood about what they want to hear about in church, we synthesized this series to be approachable and life-giving to people who are not currently in the church. The post-card has been well designed with a catchy image and all of the necessary information on the back. We hope that by sending them out, people from the community will join us in worship and discover that what the world thinks about the church may not be the same thing as what God thinks about the world.

controversy

Both of these ventures, a Community Cook-Out and a Controversial Sermon Series, are about trying to grow the church in some way, shape, or form. Many of us call this “evangelism.” But that’s not what evangelism means.

In David Fitch’s recent work Prodigal Christianity, he highlights a moment from his ministry where the church tried to grow and failed:

“When our church, Life on the Vine, was new, we sent out ten thousand postcards to people in our neighborhoods. We artfully displayed a collage of various depictions of Jesus (classical paintings, icons, and European, African, and Asian portrayals) with the question in bold print running across it: “Who is Jesus?” On the back, we invited the neighborhood to have a discussion with us about the question. We were playing off the cultural curiosity around Easter and hope that we could welcome a constructive conversation around the question. The card was not well received. Local “Bible-believing” Christians accused us of straying into relativism with so many different depictions of Jesus. They worried we were losing the truth of Jesus. Meanwhile many others accused us of being intolerant. Were not other religious leaders just as worthy of discussion? We got nasty phone calls asking, “Why are you focusing only on Jesus?” No one, and I mean NO ONE, came to any of our gatherings from this postcard.”[1]

Out of ten thousand postcards, no one came to any of the gatherings. I think a lot of this has to do with our false assumption that just by offering something people will show up. We believe that if we give them an interesting sermon series or bible study people are bound to show up in droves. And if we let them know about it through a postcard we can reach even more people!

These types of evangelism largely fail because we’ve confused evangelism with filling the pews instead of sharing the Good News.

I cringe whenever I encounter an “evangelist” in the midst of life who abruptly asks, “Have you confessed Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?” Because with their question is the assumption that we have the power to save ourselves, and that they are playing a fundamental role in our salvation. However, Jesus does not command the disciples to go out convincing people to confess him as Lord. Instead he tells them to go and make disciples.

Discipleship formation is primarily about relationships and less about post-cards and Main Street confessions. We become evangelists not when we beg or convince someone to confess Jesus as Lord, but when we intentionally create relationships with individuals through the love that Jesus taught us to live by. We can use sermon series and community events to first bring people into the church, but those types of things will never be enough (by themselves) to evangelize. It takes a willing and loving disciple who sees others not as pew fillers but fellow brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God.

As a gathering church we are called to be confident in God’s love for us, and for us to share that same love with others; “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4.19). We will grow and bear fruit in the kingdom when love becomes our first priority instead of growth. We have failed to grow not because we have been doing things unworthily, but because we’ve grown bored and unhappy. With churches all across the American landscape floundering under the pressure to grow and remain sustainable, the church falls back to the common tropes of Vacation Bible Schools and Sermon Series assuming they will grow the church.

Can you imagine what the church might look like if Christians were actually happy and excited about being the church? That’s where and when evangelism happens – not in the boredom of another series or bible study, but in the community transformed by joy and sharing that joy.

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Evangelism is our call as Christians. We are commanded by the Lord to share the Good News in order to make disciples and transform the world. If we want this kind of dynamic and life-giving evangelism to take place, then we have to be willing to crucify some of our current practices and programs; you can’t have resurrection without crucifixion.

We need to crucify our boring and lifeless activities that we assume will grow the church. Is the annual Cook-Out really sharing the good news with others, or are we doing it to feel good about seeing a lot of people on our property?

We need to ask difficult questions about our programs and whether or not they are designed to evangelize. Are our monthly meetings really about branching out to the community and transforming our cultural landscape, or are we meeting to keep the people already in the church happy?

We need to confront our budgets and demand that they reflect Jesus’ mission. Are we spending our resources according to the great commission, or are we neglecting to be good stewards by wasting our resources of lifeless avenues of ministry?

We need to take a look at our own families and reflect on how we evangelize those closest to us. Are we so consumed by raising our children to choose whether to be Christian or not for their own good, or are we afraid of telling them what we really feel and believe?

What can we crucify in our hearts and in our churches to be resurrected into the kind of evangelists that God is calling us to be?

 

 

[1] Fitch, David and Geoff Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity: Ten Signposts into the Missional Frontier (Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, 2013), 32.

10 Things I Learned From My Third Year Of Ministry

10 Things I Learned From My Third Year Of Ministry

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  1. The Holy Spirit Moves in Mysterious Ways

At the end of last summer our youth leaders resigned from their position and we were in need of new leadership. After putting out the job description in a number of places, and receiving zero responses, I decided to take over the position for a limited basis. We restarted the youth group as a discipleship adventure whereby we would meet every Wednesday night from 7-8pm for communion, fellowship, and bible study. Each week I planned out activities for the bible study, and prayed over bread and grape juice, but the youth taught me more about God than I ever taught them. Throughout the year they wrestled with topics like being Christian and political, violence, bigotry, and identify; and not because I brought the subjects up, but because they initiated the dialogue. I often make the false assumption that I am bringing God to other people as a pastor, but the youth reminded me that the Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. I never anticipated leading the youth at St. John’s UMC, but now I can see that it has been one of the most rewarding parts of my ministry.

 

  1. Time = Trust

After 3 years in ministry, I am starting to feel the trust that has formed because of the amount of time we’ve had together. Of course I felt trusted from the beginning, but we are now at a place in our relationship as church and pastor whereby we can move in new and exciting ways because of our history. At first it was a hard sell for the church to participate in something like a free community cookout, but because we have seen the fruit that comes from providing food and fellowship for the community, the church is now pushing for the event to grow. Similarly, the church has a preschool that went underappreciated for too many years. Because I have taken the time to work with the preschool, and share stories about it in worship, the church now believes in the importance of connecting with the preschoolers and their families. The trust within the church has grown because of the good time we have spent growing together in faithfulness.

 

  1. The Job Is Big

The list of things I’ve had to do under the auspices of being a pastor gets longer every week. In seminary they prepare pastors for the work of preaching, teaching, praying, and visiting, but they are a fraction of what I actually do. On any given day I am: an office manager answering phones and responding to emails; a property manager changing light bulbs, working on the plumbing, tinkering with the boiler, and climbing up into the attic for the HVAC system; a sound technician addressing the speakers and microphones in the sanctuary; a babysitter watching over children from the preschool and the greater community; a spiritual guru answering questions about faith from strangers and friends alike; a social media ninja overseeing our Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts; a webmaster maintaining the church website and internet presence; an animal control specialist removing birds that got into the social hall through the chimney; and an assortment of other jobs. To be a pastor is to wear many hats with many responsibilities.

 

  1. It’s Hard to Let Go

My wife gave birth to our first child at the end of April and I was able to take 4 weeks of paternity leave to be at home with them. Those 4 weeks were an absolute blessing to be there to comfort both of them during those difficult first weeks, and it also allowed me to bond with my son in a way that I will always cherish. However, taking that time off from the pulpit was really hard. After preaching nearly every Sunday for three years I grew accustomed to knowing the people of the church and how to faithfully proclaim God’s Word to them. In taking a month off, I had to trust that the Lord would provide even in my absence. I am thankful for the time away not only because of what it meant for my family, but also because it reminded me of the truth about the church; it belongs to God and not to me.

 

  1. If You Build It They Might Come

Just because you create a new program, or offer a new class, it does not necessarily mean that people will come. We’ve had a number of new things develop and become successful at St. John’s including a weekly lectionary bible study, weekly youth meeting, and occasional fellowship events. But for every successful venture we’ve developed, there have been an equal number of opportunities for discipleship that failed. I attempted to lead a weekly evening bible study on the book of James, and by the third week no one came. I tried to start a monthly gathering for fellowship on the first Sundays of the month and by the third month I was the only one in the fellowship hall. There is a temptation to take these kinds of failures too personally, so it is good to reflect on the times that even Jesus’ or Paul’s or Peter’s ministries were not successful. When we put our effort into something that doesn’t bear fruit, we do well to cut it off and let the vine remain strong instead of draining away its resources.

 

  1. A Phone Call Can Make All The Difference

I once heard a professor say that 90% of the church will show up for church on Sunday, so working on worship and sermon preparation should demand 90% of a pastor’s time. Though this is true on one level, it also neglects to account for those who either can no long come to church, or haven’t for some time. On a whim last fall I decided to go through the entire church directory and call every person that was not in church the previous Sunday. A number of people were simply out of town, or had not been to the church in a number of years, but every single person was grateful for the phone call nonetheless. I did not call in order to guilt the people into coming back to church, or with some other ulterior motive, but simply to say “hello” and the response has been incredible. For those who have fallen captive to loneliness they were reminded that the church still cares about them, and for those on the edge of regular church attendance they were reminded that the church knows them and wants to stay connected. All it takes is lifting up a phone and dialing a number and it can make all the difference.

 

  1. People Remember

It amazes me how people can remember a phrase from a sermon or a prayer from a year ago and demonstrate how it has developed into fruit in their daily lives. I’ll be sitting in a lectionary bible study and one of the people in the room will quote a sermon I offered on the text from three years ago. Or I will be sitting with a family in my office planning for a funeral and one of the family members will ask me to preach on a text they once heard me mention from the pulpit. Or I will be in the midst of concluding a chapel time lesson with the preschoolers when one of them will connect the message to a different lesson from earlier in the year (we were talking about the power of communion and I was holding the loaf of bread when one of our four-year-olds shouted out, “so Jesus was born in the house of bread (Bethlehem) and then he gives us the bread of life? Cool!”). Seeing and experiencing how people remember what I have said in the past is remarkably affirming, but it is also indicative of the power of our words.

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  1. Thankfulness Breeds Generosity

For a long time the church I serve was in a difficult financial situation. They had not paid their apportionments in full for the better part of two decades and they regularly struggled making sure they had enough to keep the church open from month to month. As a congregation they became accustomed to hearing about the financial disparities and the need for them to sacrifice for the greater church. When I arrived we attempted to look at our financial situation from a completely different perspective and instead of talking about sacrifice, we talked about generosity. Little by little, as the church saw the tangible fruit from our ministries developing throughout the year, our offering started to increase which in turn allowed us to focus on more opportunities for ministry and not just keeping the church open from month to month. It took some time, but we were able to move from a maintenance model of the church to a missional model for the church. Last fall, after it was clear that we would be able to pay our apportionments in full for the third year in a row, I hand wrote a letter to everyone who gave to the church during the previous year. It took a long time, but I wanted everyone to know how thankful the church was for each person’s continued generosity and commitment to building God’s kingdom. What I never anticipated was the fact that our weekly offering grew almost immediately after the letters went out. I believe that knowing how our gifts have been used for God’s kingdom, and that the church is grateful for those gifts, has reshaped our church’s identity from scarcity to generosity.

 

  1. Though We May Not Think Alike…

John Wesley once famously said, “Though we may not think alike, may we not love alike? Without all doubt we may.” At the heart of Methodism is a commitment to think and let think. Which is to say, we are a church of differing opinions and somehow we can continue to do the work of the church because we are united in our love. This kind of commitment to radical love amidst disagreements has been evident in the way people have responded to my preaching. Over the last year I have been able to speak toward a variety of subjects that we are clearly divided over. I have addressed homosexuality, the pervasiveness of violence, divorce, and other subjects. I have made jokes about Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. I have tried to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And people keep showing up to church. Even though they let me know that might not agree with anything I said on a particular Sunday, they will be sitting in one of the pews the following week. Though we may not think alike, we are still loving alike in this strange and beautiful thing we call the church.

 

  1. I Still Have The Best Job In The World

Ordained ministry is an odd and wondrous calling. There are days that feel like I am carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders and I become frighteningly anxious over the future of the church. I will pull out my phone and learn about another person’s death, or I will receive an email about a divorce that is about to be finalized, or someone will show up at my office looking for any sense of hope in an otherwise hopeless situation. But most of the time, it is the greatest job in the world. Where else could I spend time deep in God’s Word reflecting on how the Lord continues to speak to us today? What job would give me the opportunity to preside over something as precious as the water dripping on a child’s head in baptism or breaking off a piece of bread for a faithful disciple? What vocation would bring me to the brink of life and death on such a regular basis? It is a privilege to serve God’s kingdom as the pastor of St. John’s and more rewarding than I could have ever imagined.

Yes!

Psalm 16

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; I have a goodly heritage. I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure. For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the pit. You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Romans 12.2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

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Years ago there was a young man, fresh out of seminary, ready to start serving at his first appointment. He had taken all of the right classes, learned from gifted professors, and even volunteered in the local community. After he finished packing his bags, he loaded up the car and made his way to John Wesley UMC. The novice pastor was anxious and excited about what the church would be like, so before he unpacked any of his belongings he drove out to the church property.

He found the location on the map, went to the listed address, but there was no church to be found. So he turned around and drove to the spot once again only to discover that the church was blocked by the oldest and most decrepit looking tree he had ever seen. The roots were stretching all over the property and the leaves blocked the building and the marquee from being visible on the road.

He couldn’t believe it! No wonder he had heard that church attendance had decreased over the last few years! The young pastor was convinced that if only people could see the church from the road, it would grow and grow and grow.

So, before unpacking any of his important belongings, before even working on his first sermon, the young pastor unpacked his chainsaw and went back to the church. It took him most of the afternoon, but by the time he was finished the tree was gone, the sign and church were visible from the road, and he just knew that the church pews would be filled to the brim on Sunday.

A few days later, as he sat in the study of his parsonage crafting the words for his first message, the local District Superintendent called: “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking yet,” he said, “because you being reappointed.”

You see, the church was called John Wesley UMC for a reason: nearly two hundred years earlier a man named John Wesley had planted that tree while he was in the community. The gathered people decided to build a church right where the tree had been planted in honor of the man who planted the seeds that started our church, and that young pastor had chopped it down.

Apart

I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved,” says the Psalmist. What kind of faith would we have to have to be able to faithfully affirm these words? “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places… You show me the path of life.” Who do you imagine speaking when you hear these words? Perhaps you picture one the great prophets from the Old Testament like Elijah, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah speaking about their faith, or maybe you immediately connect these words with a saint from your life, or perhaps you recall one of the wonderful pastors who served this church in the past.

I want to be able to faithfully proclaim these words, I want my life to reflect the kind of trust and assurance present in the psalm, I want to say “yes” to God over and over, but the problem is, I usually say “no.”

That, in a sense, is the great story of scripture. God offers us a path, he offers us a way, he offers us a “yes” and we respond by saying “no.” I have given you everything you will ever need here in the Garden of Eden; your lives will be perfect forever so long as you don’t eat from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. “No thanks God, we know what we’re doing and we’d rather try the fruit.”

I will deliver you out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt and bring you to the Promised Land. Follow my servant Moses, adhere to my commands, and everything will be wonderful. “No thanks God, we’d rather go back to Egypt, at least we had food there.”

I will make of you a great nation, you will grow in prosperity, but you must not worship any other gods instead of me. Listen to the prophets, give heed to my Word, and you will have life. “No thanks God, it’s easier to worship a golden calf and ask for prosperity than it is to live a life according to your law.”

Take up your cross and follow me, give of yourself to those who are suffering, pray for your enemies, worship the Lord, believe in the Good News. “No thanks Jesus, we’d rather hang you on a cross than start living our lives for other people.”

In scripture, whenever people stubbornly say “no” to the will of God, God declares, “Yes.” Like a parent with a child, it happens over and over. And this paradoxical relationship between God and God’s people bleeds out from scripture into our lives even today. God starts calling us to live a new kind of life through the words of a friend, through a profound experience, and maybe even through a sermon and we think “No thanks Lord, I know better.”

God calls us to sacrifice our time and money, to gather regularly for worship and be transformed, to believe in the power of grace and mercy, and we say, “No thanks God. I’ve got better things to do.”

God says to a young pastor, “I am calling you to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. Preach the Good News. Serve the last, least, and lost. Plant seeds of faith. Remember the tradition that brought you here.” And he says, “No thanks God. I know what I’m doing, and I’m gonna chop down that tree.”

The truest and most faithful words we can ever pray, are words that we pray every week in church: “Thy will be done.” Those words are at the very heart of what it means to be Christian: submitting ourselves to the will of the Lord. And even though they are the truest and most faithful words we can ever pray, and even though we say them every week, they are the hardest to live by.

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Today marks the beginning of our 4th year together in ministry. And, I have to admit, I didn’t want to come here. I was utterly convinced that I needed to be an associate pastor at a different church right after seminary. I even contacted all the churches in Virginia hiring associates that year and had scheduled interviews. But then the Lord decided this is where I was supposed to be. I knew what I wanted, I knew where I thought I should be, and I was pretty nervous about coming here. Even though I continued to pray, “thy will be done,” I was really saying “my will be done.”

And, I’ve come to find out, that some of you didn’t want me to come here. Members of the staff-parish relations committee wanted a younger pastor to come to St. John’s, but one with experience. They wanted some new and fresh energy, but definitely not someone right out of seminary. And one of you told me that they first time I walked into the church, all you could think was, “he’s a baby.” But God sent me to you. You knew what you wanted, you knew what kind of pastor the church needed, and then I showed up. Even though many of you were praying, “thy will be done,” you were really saying, “my will be done.”

It happens with pastors being appointed to churches, it happens when we start wrestling with a call to a different career, it happens when children enter the picture and new priorities erupt, it happens when someone proposes a new way forward. My will be done versus thy will be done.

In the great battle of “No” and “Yes” in scripture, the final movement came in the cross and the tomb. God’s people continually rebelled against God’s love time and time again, even to the point of delivering God’s son to the cross. But after the three days of silence that followed the crucifixion, God declared the final and triumphant “Yes” in the resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Because of the good news of the resurrection, the final “Yes” to every “No” we’ve ever offered, we are reminded of God’s unwavering faithfulness in every circumstance. Even when we push back against the will of God, the Lord’s love remains. We say that in baptism we have died with Christ and therefore we have already seen the worst. Since we have also been raised with him in his resurrection from the dead, we can live in confidence that God has already saved us from all that might destroy us, even death. Because of the resurrection, because of Easter, we can be people who actually pray those hard and beautiful words, “thy will be done,” and mean it.

Last week I gathered with thousands of other United Methodists from across the Virginia Conference for the Service of Ordering Ministry. For the last three years I have worked on demonstrating my effectiveness in ministry, which culminated in being ordained as a full elder. I made my way up to the front of the arena with my two pastoral mentors and Lindsey with Elijah, I knelt before the bishop and the conference, and I was ordained. While each ordinand knelt they were invited to choose a particular section of scripture to be displayed on the screens for everyone to see. I chose Romans 12.2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Those words were the first we ever shared together in worship 3 years ago, and they have come to define the ministry to which all of us are called. And as I felt the bishop’s hands upon my head, I thought about those words from Romans and I was overwhelmed by the Spirit’s persistent reminder, through YOUR faithfulness, I have seen the path of life. I felt convicted by the deep and profound truth that this is not a one-way relationship whereby I teach you, or I pray for you, or that I share God with you. Thanks be to God that we are in this beautiful and messy thing called church together.

Every week WE gather in this place to be transformed by the renewing of OUR minds. Through OUR worship we have worked to discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

            We are becoming the kind of people who can faithfully say, “the Lord is our chosen portion and our cup.” The communal Christian experiencing here, is about choosing Jesus again and again and again. It is about coming back to the Lord knowing that he will welcome us. It is about hearing God’s triumphant “Yes!” even when we want to say “No!”

And right now, the world wants us to believe that we have every reason to say “No.” Annual Conference is a reminder of the death that is possible in the church, we hear about all the churches closing this year, we learn about the lack of new and younger generations attending church, and we are reminded of the most frightening statistic of all: The average United Methodist invites someone to church once every 38 years.

But that doesn’t have to be our story. Desiring our will to be done is what got the church to this point in the first place. Can you imagine what would happen if we actually lived by the words “thy will be done”?

The time has come for us to declare “yes!” to the will of God. “Yes Lord, we know that through you all things are possible.” “Yes Lord, crucify our hearts so that they might be resurrected to your glory.” “Yes Lord, convict our souls to invite someone we know to experience your love here at St. John’s!” “Yes Lord, remind of our baptisms and of who we really are.” “Yes Lord, fill us with your Spirit till all shall see Christ living in us.” “Yes Lord, give us the grace and strength to take up our crosses and follow you.” “Yes Lord, let thy will be done!” Amen.

With A Little Help From My Friends

John 20.19-29

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his said, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

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Before I became your pastor, I was a pulpit-filler. If a pastor became sick, or was otherwise unavailable to preach, I was tapped on to come up with something to say from the pulpit. A phone call would arrive in the middle of a week, or even on Sunday morning, and I would have to whip something together right quick. For years I took the ”undesirable” Sundays: Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Sunday, and the Sunday after Easter; those Sundays when the regular pastor needed a break.

Every time I was tasked with preaching was an opportunity to grow in my faith while attempting to articular the faith for others.

When I was in college I got the phone call one week to preach for a Sunday evening service. I was fairly familiar with the context because I played the drums for the church every week, but this time they wanted me to come out from behind the drum set to proclaim God’s Word.

At the time I was living with a couple of roommates, but of course none of them went to church. Week after week they would rib me for waking up early on Sunday morning, they would jokingly mock me with questions about God’s presence, and they made sure I knew they thought there were better things I could be doing with my time.

So I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get them to church.

It was on a Sunday night, so they couldn’t complain about sleeping in. We would be playing contemporary Christian rock songs, so they couldn’t complain about the music. And I was supposed to preach, so they couldn’t complain about it being archaic or a waste of time (I hoped).

I casually invited them to worship while we were having dinner one night; I shared that I was the preacher and that it would be a relatively short sermon, and I made sure to mention that it would really mean a lot to me if they would come.

Under the weight of my communal invitation and guilt, they all came to church that night and sat together in a pew near the back.

The service went well; the music balance was good, and the sermon was short and to the point, and then we moved to the communion table. Our resident pastor began talking about how whenever Jesus gathered with his friends he would breathe new life into them through his words and his presence. And on his final night he took bread, broke it, gave it to his friends and said, “Take. Eat. This is my body.” And then he took the cup and shared it with his friends saying: “Take. Drink. This is my blood.

One by one every person in the sanctuary gathered in the center aisle and started walking forward for communion. The pastor stood next to me holding the bread, and I stood next to her holding the cup and for each person that came forward we said, “The body of Christ given for you.” Or: “The blood of Christ shed for you.” Hands were outstretched penitently while people feasted on the Lord, and then the end of the line came forward, with my roommates.

Unsure of what was actually taking place, they stood up like everybody else and came forward without knowing what to do next. As they stood in front of us, and in front of the whole congregation, the pastor’s eyes darted back and forth between myself, and the ragtag roommates standing in front of us. Her eyes screamed, “Do something!”

So I did what anyone in my position would do. I whispered to my friends as quickly as possible: “I know this will sound weird… But you need to take a piece of bread, dip it in the grape juice, and eat it. Don’t worry I’ll explain it to you later.” And with that they all feasted on the body and blood of our Lord, and returned to their pews confused and bewildered.

On the day of Jesus’ resurrection, after appearing to Mary Magdalene and calling her by name, Jesus appeared before the disciples. They were locked away in a room full of fear and trembling when Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” Perhaps they were afraid of being crucified like he was by the Jews, or they were afraid of how the crowds would taunt them when they came out of hiding, or they were afraid of seeing their risen friend in their midst. But Jesus found it fitting to speak words of peace in the midst of their terror.

And immediately Jesus outlined what they were supposed to do: “Go. As the Father sent me, now I send you.” With his proclamation, Jesus empowered his friends to proclaim the Good News for everyone to hear.

But Thomas, one of the disciples, was not there to experience the resurrected Jesus. The disciples tried to explain what they had seen, heard, felt, and experienced. Yet, their eyes and fingers were not enough for Thomas. He did not trust his friends. He wanted to see and touch Jesus for himself.

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Sure enough, a week passed, and Jesus showed up again before the disciples and Thomas. Again Jesus greeted them by saying, “Peace be with you.” And he told Thomas to feel the scars on his hands and side, but before Thomas could even reach out he declared, “My Lord and my God!” And thus Jesus concluded the moment by saying, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.

Thomas gets a pretty bad rap. Every year we follow Easter Sunday with this reading about doubting Thomas. He is the one disciple who gets a qualifier in front of his name. We don’t refer to eager Peter, or betraying Judas, but we do say doubting Thomas. For years pastors like me have used this Sunday and this story to call people like you to learn from the example of Thomas, to not doubt the Lord, to believe without seeing.

But the real problem with Thomas is not his lack of faith in the Lord, but his lack of faith in his friends. For three years he had traveled with this ragtag group of disciples, shoulder-to-shoulder they had watching Jesus perform countless miracles, and now when they tell him the Gospel, he does not believe them.

After the episode of my friends confusedly attending worship and receiving communion, I avoided the topic of church. I knew they had a strange experience through their lack of addressing the service in any way shape or form, and they stopped mocking me for going to church. At the time, I thought they thought I was nuts.

A few weeks passed and the topic of faith was still avoided like the plague until one morning I walked down the stairs and discovered one of my roommates crying on the couch. He had just received a phone call from a long time friend of ours whose father had died. The man was a staple in our community, regularly coached little league sports, and was another father figure for most of us. And when my roommate received the news, it devastated him.

I slowly made my way across the room and sat down next to him. For the longest time neither of us spoke. Finally my roommate looked up from his tears and he said, “I want you to pray for me.

I sat shocked. I didn’t know what to say. But he continued: “You know I don’t know much about God or church. But I know it’s important to you. When you were standing up before us in church I could tell that you really believed. I don’t know what I believe. And I can’t describe it, but I really feel like you need to pray for me.”

So I did.

When Thomas heard the news of the risen Lord through his friends, he didn’t believe them. Even though they were some of the people he should’ve trusted the most, he refused to accept their words.

When my friend felt the sting of death and loss, he didn’t know what to believe. But, for better or worse, he trusted me. Even though he had every reason to be suspicious and weirded out by what he had experienced in worship, he believed in God’s presence through prayer.

Thomas’ kind of radical suspicion of his friends still takes place in our lives today. We view church as a private thing, something we do on the weekends and don’t need to bring up during the week. We might know people in our lives that are suffering or are alone, but we assume that God will send them to us when they’re ready.

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If we want to be faithful followers of Jesus, then me must stop distrusting our friends and neighbors. At the very least, we should stop questioning motives or thinking the worst in others when they express a difference of opinion.

To be faithful followers of Jesus requires a willingness to be sent by God to people who do not know God. It requires us to be vulnerable and uncomfortable while inviting others to discover God’s love in a place like this. It requires us to be the agents of belief for people who have not yet seen.

All of us are here because we are the product of someone influencing our faithfulness. Whether a parent or a friend or even a stranger, we were once invited to discover God through the power of church.

Friends, I promise you that the days of people showing up to church because a church is in their neighborhood are long gone. Today, people discover God’s presence, they begin to believe what they see and see what they believe when people like us are brave enough to invite them to church.

Because, for us, this table is the closest we can get to the presence of Christ. In the bread and the cup God invites us into the upper room when Christ shared the meal with his friends. When we feast on his body and blood we receive the grace necessary to be Christ’s body in the world.

This thing we call communion, whether at the table or just gathering in worship, has transformed my life. If you’re here in church, it’s probably changed your life too. So, may the God of grace and glory give us the courage to invite others to be transformed as well. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 1.1

Devotional:

Psalm 1.1

Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers. 

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“Tell me something good.” This is one of my favorite ways to begin a conversation precisely because we tend to focus on the negative. As a pastor, it only takes a few minutes before people begin to open up about what is really going on in their lives and they share things that they have kept bottled up for a long time. As Christians, we are called to the ministry of presence with our fellow disciples to provide ears to hear. However, sometimes the negativity can be so overpowering that we neglect to focus on the good things in our lives.

I spent part of last week with other United Methodist pastors from the Virginia Conference. We met together in Blackstone, VA and shared reflections about our ministries and how we are continuing to respond to God’s call in our lives. For as much as people are ready to vent with their pastors about negativity, pastors are far worse when venting to other pastors. After spending so much time being present for others, we tend to neglect the importance of reflection and seeking out others to help us with our baggage. Within the first moments that we gathered together the conversation quickly turned to challenges and disappointments in the ministry.

When we broke away from our sessions to share meals together I tried to reorient the conversation toward the good, but my efforts were largely fruitless. It was as if we were trying to make the most out of our time together before heading back to our churches and we just kept dumping all of our worries and anxieties on one another. But then something amazing happened…

We were sitting in a circle when our leader told us to break off into small groups and share the names of people for whom we knew we had been fruitful. We were told to focus on the good and the positive as we shared our stories. Then when we regathered as a group we went around the circle praying for the names we had raised, gave thanks to God for putting them in our lives, and then we thanked God for putting us in their lives.

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Why is it so hard to focus on the good? Psalm 1 affirms that happiness can be found in  those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or follow the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers, but we forget how important it is to celebrate the goodness of God in our lives. Instead we listen to the wicked, follow the sinners, and scoff from our chairs. How much happier could we be if we followed the advice of Psalm 1.1?

This week, let us strive to focus on the good in our lives. Instead of dwelling in the negative, let us give thanks to God for the people we have shaped and the people who have shaped us.

Devotional – John 15.1-2

Devotional:

John 15.1-2

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 

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Sometimes I speak before thinking. The Bishop had come into town to address a gathering of clergy about upcoming initiatives and events in the life of our Annual Conference. We spent a significant amount of time addressing the metrics that all United Methodist Churches are required to measure and report on a weekly basis including: Worship Attendance, Weekly Offering, Professions of Faith, Christian Formation Groups, Mission Giving/Persons in Mission. When the presentation came to a conclusion, the Bishop opened the floor for questions. A few timid hands rose from the pews with standard questions about particular theological issues that the church is still wrestling with, and before I knew it I had my hand sticking straight up in the air and the bishop asked for my question.

I thanked the bishop for taking time to speak with us and then I launched right into my question. It went something like this: “I can appreciate the need to log our metric data every week as we seek to be better stewards of our churches and continue to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. However, what are we doing about the churches that are no longer fruitful? Are we addressing their negative data? Because I seem to remember a time when Jesus said ‘I am the vine, and my Father in the vinegrower, and he removes the branches that no longer bear fruit.’” At that moment a number of the clergy in the room began to laugh nervously and I continued on, “I’m not kidding around. If we’re serious about living into God’s kingdom here and now, then are we willing to cut off the branches that are no longer bearing fruit?”

The silence that followed was palpable.

The Bishop took his time to address my question and explained that we need to mourn the loss of any church, but the coming reality is that some churches are no longer bearing fruit and we will have to do something about it eventually. I recognize now that I could’ve articulated my question in a gentler fashion, but I still stand by Christ’s words.

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In our faith journeys, and in our churches, we tend to desire change by addition while Christ articulated an alternative. If something is not bearing fruit in our churches or in our lives, what would it look like for us to cut them away? The future of our faith and church is largely dependent on our willingness to sacrifice the branches that have continued to wither away while other branches are bearing fruit in other places.

This week, let us take a good look at our lives to see whether or not we are bearing fruit. Let us pray to the Lord for guidance about how we can be better stewards of our churches and bear fruit for God’s kingdom.