The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Isaiah 60.1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold, and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

“A banana phone?”

“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”

My family was sprawled out around my parents living room, all in matching pajamas, as we patiently awaited the first gift of Christmas.

My mother, having her progeny surrounding her, ripped the wrapping paper with precision, and inside… was a banana phone.

It was yellow and curved, as you’d expect, and it just sat there in her hand as she looked across the room at my father.

“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”

“It connects via bluetooth,” he said, with just the hint of self-justification in his voice. “It’s for those times that you can find your cell phone in your purse, you can just grab the banana and bring it to your ear and have a normal conversation.”

“There’s nothing normal about talking into a banana.”

And in the brief moment of awkward silence as all of us took in the scene of not only the first gift of Christmas, but the first strange gift of Christmas, my toddler promptly jumped up and, diffusing the situation, he declared, “I play with the banana phone.”

We didn’t see him for the next ten minutes as he walked around the house having a pretend conversation about who knows what.

I love asking questions, particularly those that even out the playing field and those that give everyone a chance to respond.

What’s one of your favorite Christmas presents of all time? 

That’s a great question, because it immediately gets people thinking nostalgically about the past and inevitably it draws people closer to one another as they share collective memories from the past about toys long forgotten, or no longer created.

But there’s an even better question than the best Christmas present… What’s one of the strangest Christmas presents you’ve ever received?

People will normally furrow their brows in response as they think deeply about an out of left-field gift from days long ago, but usually somebody will start laughing before they even start the story.

I know that for the rest of her life, my mother will consider the banana phone one of the strangest gifts she’s ever received. 

It’s certainly practical, to some degree, thought it’s not something she needs and, more importantly, it’s not something she will ever use.

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Sometime after Jesus was born, though we’ve not entirely sure when, magi or wisemen or astrologers from the east came to visit the newborn Messiah. They conspired with King Herod to discover Jesus’ location but when they discerned his fear and/or jealously, they set out ahead of him until they arrived in Bethlehem. 

They were overwhelmed with joy and entered the house where the little family was huddled together and they opened up their treasure chests: gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Scripture doesn’t tell us a whole lot more than that. We don’t read about Mary and Jospeh’s conversation with the magi, or even if they picked the little baby up in their arms, or even what their names were!

And yet, over the years, I’ve found myself wondering about this particular scene from scripture. 

What did Mary and Joseph think about the gift? 

Where were the magi with the diapers, and pacifiers, and formula? 

Did anyone offer to give the new parents a night out on the town without baby duty? 

Who brought the casserole to put in the refrigerator for late night meals?

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh – Are they the gifts that keep on giving?

Today is Epiphany, an often overlooked moment on the liturgical calendar. It marks the conclusion of the season of Christmas and it celebrates the extension of the gospel to the gentiles. 

In the magis’ moment at the manger we witness the great scope of God’s mission in and through Jesus Christ insofar as it will not be limited to a particular people in a particular place, but will indeed fulfill the words from the prophet Isaiah.

Arise, shine; for the light has come! Darkness cover the earth and all of her people, but the Lord has arisen, and his glory has appeared.

Nations will come to the light, and even kings will be beckoned to the brightness of God’s new dawn. 

Just open your eyes and look around, all have gathered together, and in the seeing we rejoice with radiance because the gifts have arrived.

There is a strange temptation in the season of Christmastide, better known as the time after Christmas, in which we still faintly revel in the music and the lights and even the presents that once sat under our tree. But now, 12 days later, the luster is starting to diminish as the real world catches back up with us. 

Some of the things we opened have already been returned, others have been regifted, and some have been placed in a box never to see the light of day!

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Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh were, and are, gifts that go far above and beyond the recipients. Mary and Joseph were of a certain way of life such that that was probably the first, and only time, they ever saw, let alone held, those kinds of items. They demonstrate the paradoxical subversion of the status quo.

Up until this manger moment, it was the poor and the marginalized who were expected to present presents to those in power – people like the magi.

But now, in Jesus, the first are becoming last and the last are becoming first. That’s the power of the light that shines in the darkness, it draws us in like flies on a hot summer night to a florescent neon glow, and we can’t help ourselves.

The gifts of the wisemen were not particularly helpful to a pair of new parents – they weren’t going to make Jesus fall asleep or quit his crying or even pacify his hunger, but they do point to one of the things that’s right with the church.

The church is the place where the power of the light that shines in the darkness is made intelligible through practices like being the church in worship!

When we gather to sing and praise, when we hear the good news of the gospel, we are living into the drama of the multitudes that Isaiah is describing.

Here in this place at this time we are in the great company of people from all nations and all ages.

And to be abundantly clear, our church lives into this in a way that many others do not. If you take a look around our sanctuary we are not nearly as monolithic as other places of worship are. Thanks to the hard work of those who came before us we are one of the more diverse churches in the area and we are therefore a foretaste of the vision Isaiah describes.

But, lest we walk out of here with heads too big to fit through the door – we certainly have room for improvement. 

The light of Christ shines among us so that we can see ourselves as we truly are, but the light also shows us a glimpse of what can be.

Isaiah’s powerful words about the light made possible in Jesus remind us that the healing and solace we find in a place like the church is not the ultimate reason the church exists. Otherwise we would be just another self-help group among the many others that exist. Instead, God restores us to a newness and a wholeness in and with the church so that we can take our place among the people of God while making room for more to join us.

One of the things that’s right with the church is the fact that it is the powerful place in which we are uplifted in the recognition that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, and that we belong to something different than ourselves.

I’ve said it many times before but the church seems to be the only place left where people willfully gather together with others with whom they fundamentally disagree on a number of issues except for the fact that Jesus is Lord.

We, as the church, are part of a multitude that includes the magi, and the saints, and the martyrs, and the sinners, and everyone in between. There is no other place that can quite build us up while also pointing toward the difficult truths we’d otherwise ignore.

In Jesus we are made perfect, but we are still the fallible sinners in need of Jesus’ saving grace. The church is indeed the better place God has made in the world and God is still not quite done with us yet!

The beginning of Isaiah’s proclamation, Arise and Shine!, is not a suggestion, and it’s not even an invitation – it is a command. Get up! Shine! Go!

Here, on the day of Epiphany, as we celebrate the total scope of the gospel extending to the gentiles, we are challenged by Isaiah’s words to move out of the waiting of Advent darkness, and beyond the mystery of the Christmas incarnation, toward the brilliance of the brightness in Christ the Lord.

But the brilliant brightness is only necessary because of the thick darkness that covers the people. During the time of Isaiah the darkness was nothing new to the people Israel. They truly knew what it means to dwell in thick darkness while exiled in Babylon. And today, we too dwell in our own version of exilic darkness.

We are far more persuaded by the talking heads on television than we are by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We are regularly fearful of the other and anything that appears strange and yet Jesus Christ is the strange incarnation of God in the flesh.

We are more likely to turn our heads away from the suffering in the world around us even though Jesus regularly walked into it again and again.

So what’s right with the church? 

If we are broken people in need of grace, if we routinely make the wrong choices or avoid making the right choices, if we perpetuate the thick darkness that Jesus came to destroy can we really say there is anything right with the church?

Jesus is what is right with the church, not us. Jesus is the one great gift that really keeps on giving. But he does not bring us prosperity and peace and preferential treatment. 

The great gift of Christ, the light that shines and never fades, is nothing but the cross upon which he was killed.

As I said on Christmas Eve, the same baby in the manger is the one who was hung for the sins of the world. The same child to which the magi brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh is the same one who broke free from the chains of death. 

Jesus Christ will forever be the gift that keeps on giving because he gives himself for you and me, knowing full and well who we are who and who we are meant to be. Amen. 

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Devotional – 1 Corinthians 12.7

Devotional:

1 Corinthians 12.7

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

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When I was younger, the bishop of the Virginia Annual Conference appointed a Korean man to serve as the pastor of my home church in Alexandria. MJ Kim is a gifted pastor and served the church faithfully during his appointment, though it was challenging. I was too young to understand it at first, but as I matured I started to witness people at the church complain about his accent and heritage. I would hear adults in the narthex express frustration about not understanding what he was saying from the pulpit, or growing tired of hearing anecdotes about Korea. Yet, from my young vantage point, I loved having him as my pastor. His accent was powerful in the pulpit as it continuously reminded me that God is the God of all peoples, and his stories about Korea and growing into his faith were exciting and dynamic.

Year later, after MJ was appointed somewhere else, I was talking with one of the ushers at my home church about all the pastors that had served the church. This particular usher, though kind and faithful, was one of the people who were notorious for complaining about MJ during his time at our church. As we stood together before worship, comparing all of the pastors of the past, the usher sighed deeply and said, “MJ was such a gift. I wish I had appreciated him while he was here.” I stood speechless as this usher had apparently changed his entire perspective around our former pastor and then finally asked what had led to this shift in opinion. His response was simple and to the point: “Sometimes I couldn’t understand him, and sometimes his stories felt so far away, but whenever MJ was in that pulpit, I felt the Spirit with us.”

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Paul is quick to remind the church in Corinth that each person is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good of the community. While so many of us are quick to judge and complain about the people in the pews next to us, Paul beckons us to see them as gifted and blessed people who can help transform us for the kingdom of God. MJ Kim was indeed a blessing to that church precisely because he was different than most of us; his gift of the Spirit challenged us to be more like Christ every single day of our lives.

How has God blessed you with gifts? What are your strengths for the common good? Are you faithfully using the blessings God has given you to make the community better for everyone? Are you thankful for the people in whom you experience the manifestation of the Spirit? What can you do to contribute to the common good?

The Gifts of God – Peace

Micah 5.2-5a

But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are the one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.

 

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The children looked perfect in their Christmas pageant costumes. One by one they entered the chancel area in preparation for proclaiming their individual lines. The shepherds came first, watching over their sheep. Then the animals of the manger came forth, including a cow, a bird, and a mouse. They all made it to their spots and sat perfectly still as a donkey, Mary, and Joseph walked up to the microphone and exclaimed that a baby would soon be born, but they would need to find a place to stay.

Then the angelic cherubs boldly walked down the center aisle in the dark each holding an electric candle. The lead angel walked up to the microphone and frightening declared: “Do not be afraid! I bring joy to everyone!” The wise men and a camel followed the star to the manger where they presented the baby Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

I had the best vantage point of the entire production from up here in the pulpit. I could see all of the children with their costumes and I could also look out at the faces of all the parents, families, and friends that had gathered for this spectacular performance. I was honestly beaming while I stood up here on Tuesday evening because the kids had all done such a great job, they all nailed their lines, and were standing perfectly still in their spots.

Except for one of our shepherds.

Throughout the weeks of practice we had purposely withheld the shepherd staffs from the children knowing full and well that they would play with them too much. And during the actual performance most of them were being wonderful, but one of the shepherds could not overcome the desire to do something.

At first he just twirled the staff around in his hands like trying to start a fire on the carpet. Later, he swung it from side to side like a microphone at a rock and roll concert. I tried my best to whisper powerfully for him to stop, and though he would for a moment or two, he would then start up with something new.

As we were nearing the end of the performance, nearly all of the characters and animals from the manger scene were in place; the little shepherd grabbed his staff and started lifting it into the air. I, of course, immediately thought of Moses lifting up his staff in the wilderness to strike the rock for water. I, of course, immediately thought of how theological our young shepherd was being as he lifted the staff into the air, but then I realized he was about to bash somebody on the top of the head!

Breaking character from the pulpit, I quickly reached down and stopped the staff in mid arch. My eyes went down the shaft of the staff to the little hand, to the arm, to the face of the young shepherd, and instead of seeing a repentant and apologetic look; he had the biggest and proudest grin on his face.

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We lean toward violence. From Preschoolers picking up shepherd staffs, to fights in high school, to international and political disagreements, we lean toward violence. There is a power that comes with violence and demonstrates our importance and opinion. Violence has been at the forefront of some of the most important historical moments in the entirety of human existence and still captivates our attention. The movies that make the most money, the stories that garner the most attention, the moments we can’t tear our eyes away from usually contain violence.

As I have found myself saying too often from this pulpit: just turn on the TV or get online and you will be immediately bombarded with the violence in the world and the local community. Even this season of Advent and preparation for the holidays tends to bring out the worst in us. We have short tempers with the people ahead of us in line while we are buying gifts. We mutter inappropriate comments about drivers that are just driving too slowly. And we secretly expect to receive as many good gifts as we give.

Our lives and the world are filled with aggression, anger, and violence.

Yet, the prophet tells us about the one who will come with peace.

Micah spoke during a time of considerable unrest. The situation was grim with corrupt political leaders. There were fearful enemies on the horizon. Internal disputes were pinning people against one another. (Sound familiar?) And while the people saw no hope, Micah saw the promise of peace. Micah looked beyond the present circumstances, he looked beyond the news headlines and the talking heads, he looked beyond the broken and tarnished community to what God was promising to do.

From the little town of Bethlehem will come one who will rule the world. From a back road town of insignificance will come the one who will lead his flock in the way that leads to life and peace.

Many of us have a hard time imaging that an impressive hero can come from such a small town and such a fragile beginning. We, instead, look to politicians and presidents, magistrates and ministers, to fix all of our problems. But from the words of scripture this morning, Micah is jumping up and down and waving his arms to move us in an entirely different direction. He is pointing not at the towering leaders of the world on CNN. He is not drawing us to the political buildings in Washington DC. Instead he is pushing us to a small, out of the way, little place called Bethlehem.

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Jesus is the one of peace, the one who comes as a light in the darkness, the one who will stand and lead like a shepherd. Jesus came from humble beginnings and changed the world.

One of the things that the bible loves to show us is that true power and peace often comes from unexpected people in unexpected places. Many of us have heard the Christmas story so many times that we are desensitized to the insignificance of Bethlehem in the most significant story ever told.

Yet, important babies that change the world can be born just about anywhere. Bethlehem is proof of that. Every baby has the potential to help remind us of the way that leads to peace. Jesus is proof of that.

This week, our little neck of the woods made national news. A local geography teacher landed in the hot seat for an assignment where her students were required to copy a text in Arabic from the Quran. The purpose was to demonstrate the beauty and power of calligraphy and, in a sense, teach students to appreciate people who have differing beliefs and opinions. However, when a particular parent found out that the text in Arabic said, “There is no god but Allah. Muhammad is the messenger of Allah” everything came to a head.

In the days that followed, a community meeting was held at a local church for concerned parents who were outraged by the assignment. Augusta County rightly started to step up security measures in order to maintain the peace, but the longer the situation percolated the more frightening it became. On Thursday morning there were armed guards at Riverheads elementary school. And on Thursday afternoon, every student in Augusta County was ordered to leave their respective school and the buildings were to go on lockdown. Lastly, Friday’s classes were completely canceled.

Augusta County received so many threats by phone and mail that they believed they could not guarantee the safety of their students and decided to cancel an entire day of school.

There are so many facets to the story that we don’t have enough time to address all of them, but suffice it to say, it is sad. It is a sad that a teacher did not take the time to re-evaluate what text she was having the students copy. It is sad that an entire community responded immediately out of fear and hatred. It is sad that such a tremendous amount of people were filled with rage to the point that Augusta County had to cancel school. It is sad.

While Fox News picked up the story for the nation to learn about what was going on here, I felt God’s Word calling me to listen to the Bethlehem-like voices. Instead of reading news article after news article from talking heads, I went to the local youth of our community and listened.

This is what one of them said: “Religion is not the problem. Religion does not breed terrorism. Ignorance breeds terrorism. Lack of education breeds terrorism. Failure to see the world around you breeds terrorism. Incompetence breeds terrorism. The inability to accept one’s wrongs breeds terrorism. The inability to connect and empathize and understand your fellow human beings is what breeds terrorism.”

I don’t know how to fix or change what happened in Augusta County this week, but if we continue to treat everyone who is different from us with nothing but suspicion and fear, then we have lost our connection to the one who comes in peace. If we make the self-righteous assumption that everyone should look like us, think like us, and talk likes us, then we have stopped following Jesus.

For too long we have lived with a culture that teaches us to defeat our enemies so that only our friends will be left. But that’s not what Jesus calls us to do! Jesus, the one born in a manger in Bethlehem, Jesus the one who shall be our peace, Jesus the one who we worship on Christmas Eve and every Sunday of our lives, tells us to love our enemies! Jesus calls us to pray for those who persecute us. Jesus tells us to live our lives in the way that leads to peace.

God’s peace in Christ is a gift; a gift with strings attached. God gives us peace, but we are to be instruments of God’s peace on earth. We know that peace is not easy. It requires a willingness to sacrifice and be vulnerable with people who differ from us. Peace is uncomfortable. Peace is strange. Peace is difficult because it is so contrary to the ways of the world.

Peace is hard, but so is following Jesus. Amen.

The Gifts of God – Hope

Isaiah 12.2-6

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

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Over the last few weeks we have been going through a sermon series on The Gifts of God. This has been particularly fitting considering the fact that Advent is usually a time when we fret about what we will be purchasing for everyone else. However, this Advent, we have been reflecting on what God has given us. Today we continue the sermon series with God’s gift of Hope.

When I was a kid, even when I was as young as some of our preschoolers, I loved Star Wars. We had the old VHS versions of “A New Hope” “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi.” The covers were so worn from use that you could barely read the writing, and the film inside the VHS tapes was starting to crackle from excessive usage. But I loved them nonetheless.

Some of the themes were lost on me as a child but I loved the light saber fights, the fundamental battle of Good vs. Evil (The Darkside vs. The Light), and that a kid from a Tatooine moisture farm could go from bulls-eyeing womp rats in T-16 to saving the entire galaxy.

Star Wars taught me that, with the right cause, even the weak could triumph. Star Wars taught me that we are not defined by our past and are given opportunities to change. And Star Wars taught me about hope.

In the beginning of Episode IV, aptly titled “A New Hope”, the galaxy is in disarray and the evil Empire continues to exert its power over the powerless. For a generation, people of all shapes and sizes cowered under the rule of the emperor and started to forget the way things used to be. However, a group of people held onto the hope of a new future, they called themselves The Rebel Alliance, and they believed that things could change.

Isaiah 12 is about hope for the future. Like the rebels from the Star Wars universe, Isaiah fundamentally believed that a day would come when everything would be turned upside down and salvation would be delivered.

With confidence, Isaiah declared a profound trust in the Lord, a trust without fear. With hope, Isaiah envisioned that future day when all of God’s people would give thanks to the Lord and make God’s deeds known among the nations. With joy, Isaiah could hear the songs of the future praising the mighty works of the Lord, for he would have done gloriously.

And on that day, God’s people will draw water from the wells of salvation.

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The man felt empty; like something was missing from his life. He had parents who loved him, he had gone to the right school, he had a good job, but things didn’t feel right. Whenever the holiday seasons came around he did not have the energy the call his parents, he resented the happy families at department stores purchasing gifts, and he abstained from the holiday radio channels.

He couldn’t explain it but one day he lost his patience with his family when they kept asking him about whether or not he was happy. One day at work he screamed at a customer after losing his patience. And one night, while he sat in his apartment, he realized how empty and lonely he felt.

He continued like this for some time. Living a dry and empty life, until he met her. She was everything he could have hoped for; smart, pretty, funny. They immediately hit it off, and in her he believed he found the solution for his emptiness, in her he thought he found the one thing that could fill him again.

The beginning of their marriage was wonderful; they saw the world with hope and expectation. They both were not filled, but they had more than they had in a long time. But it started to fade. Arguments with the in-laws, shouting matches in the living room, and nights spent sleeping in other rooms emptied them of the joy and hope they once felt.

They were at a crossroads in their relationship and were unsure of how to move forward. Both of them were too proud to try counseling, and definitely too proud to apologize, so they just continued with the thinly veiled frustration with one another. But then they had an idea: “Maybe if we have a child, it will fix all our problems, it will bring us closer together.”

They had some stability after the first, but when things reverted back to the pre-baby days, they decided to have a second child, and then a third. What they didn’t know, but what many of should know, is that even the perfect child cannot fill the emptiness within us. No child should be expected to make up for our baggage, and no child should be expected to heal our brokenness.

But this habit and rhythm in the family didn’t stop. After the kids, the parents tried to fill themselves with experiences and material possessions. They went on vacations they couldn’t afford, they took out a loan on a house they could never pay back, and every Christmas had to be better (and filled with more gifts) than the last. But all of these things failed to fill the emptiness they felt.

And on that day, God’s people will draw water from the wells of salvation.

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Jesus once met a woman at a well and confronted her emptiness. She had attempted to fill her life with man after man and yet there was something missing. Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.

Many of us are broken. Actually, the truth is, we are all broken. Most of us just don’t want to admit it. We have good days, but there are times that we feel dry and empty inside. We seek out the wrong objects to validate our lives: a spouse, a career, a child. And none of those things are strong enough to hold our identity together.

Yet, God offers us this living water, water from a well that never runs dry. When we start to see the hope that God has given us, when we rest our identity on the fact that we are first a child of God, when we drop our buckets into God’s well of salvation things starts to change.

God knows our thoughts and minds. God witnesses our brokenness and sinfulness. And God still loves us anyway. God’s love is truly unconditional. God’s love is unmerited. God’s love is filled with hope for our futures.

I’ve only been doing this whole pastor thing for two and a half years, but two and a half years is long enough to know that most of us, if not all of us, are looking for love and validation in all the wrong places. We expect our children to makes our lives better, we expect the presents under the tree to make our lives fuller, and we expect our spouses to fix all of our problems.

Jesus offers us something totally and wonderfully different. Jesus offers us hope from the well of salvation. A hope in a future not defined by our past. A future not limited by the mistakes we make here and now. A future not corrupted by the powers of death.

Jesus offers us hope, a hope unlike any other, a hope that can truly fill us.

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When we find our hope in the Lord, we can stand up to the intolerance and injustice in our midst because we know God’s sees the world differently.

When we find our hope in the Lord, the presents under the tree will not leave us looking for the next fix because we will know that the greatest gift we’ve ever received is Jesus.

When we find our hope in the Lord, we can confront the brokenness in the world and know that life here on earth is not the end.

Isaiah had hope, hope for a day when God would show up, hope for a time when God would make all things new. Isaiah prayed for a future where people would sing praises for the glorious power of the Lord. Isaiah dreamed about a day when God would offer the wells of salvation to the world.

That hope became real on the first Christmas, and that hope is still real and available to you and to me.

Jesus calls to each of us today and says, “I can fill you. I can fill you with the living water that never runs dry. I can bring you to the well of salvation. I can fill you with hope, and love, and validation. I can fill you with joy, and peace, and purpose. I can fill you and turn your life around.

Amen.

 

(With thanks to the Tamed Cynic, Jason Micheli, for inspiring parts of this sermon)

Devotional – Jeremiah 31.14

Devotional:

Jeremiah 31.14

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

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

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

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

Be-Present

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

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

The Talent Show – Sermon on Matthew 25.14-30

Matthew 25.14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave, you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

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I have an idea. We are going to start things off in the sermon a little differently this morning. Instead of sitting patiently and attentively while I spout off about theological ideas and anecdotes, we are going to do an activity…

In the parable of the talents, the master gives to the first slave five talents, the second slave two talents, and to the third slave he gives one talent. During the time of Christ, a talent was worth more than fifteen years of wages for a daily laborer; therefore this was a tremendous amount of money. So, here’s our activity: I want us to imagine that we are the modern equivalent of the master’s slaves, and we are going to discuss what we are going to do with the talents. If you’re sitting in the front third of the sanctuary I want you to imagine that the master has given you $50,000. In the middle third I want you to imagine that the master has given you $20,000. And the back third I want you to imagine that the master has given you $10,000. (If you remember anything from worship today, let it be this: It pays to sit near the front!) Anyway, I would like you to break up into groups of three or four and discuss what you would do with the money for the benefit of the kingdom of God. Begin.

Okay. The master would like to know what you are planning to do with his talents…

Of course, in the parable things work out a little differently. The master has decided to go on a great journey, and entrusts an incredible amount of money to three of his slaves. He provides them with five talents, two talents, and one talent, to each according to his ability. After the master leaves the five talent slave goes off and works hard with his talents and makes five more. Likewise the two talent slave goes off and works hard to earn two more talents. However the one talent slave went off and dug a hole in the ground to hide his master’s money.

The master returns and is greatly thrilled with the first two slaves. He rewards their trustworthy and hardworking nature by placing them in charge of many things, and then invites them into the joy of their master. But with the one talent slave, the master is very disappointed. The third slave was afraid of his master and saw that he was harsh, so he hid the talent in the ground. To which the master replies, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own interest.” The master takes away the one talent and orders the slave to be thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Out of all the parables that Jesus shared with his disciples, this one has probably been more abused and misused than any other. Once any parable is abstracted from the proclamation of the kingdom, misreading is inevitable. Jesus shared a story about a shepherd who goes after the one sheep that is missing – God rejoices in seeking out those who are lost, even if they appear insignificant. Jesus tells another story about a young man who squanders his inheritance and comes back to his father begging to be welcomed as a slave and the father throws a great banquet for the return of the prodigal – God, though harsh, is a loving, reconciling, and forgiving presence.

Parable Definition

The parable of the talents however, has been twisted around to fit the arguments of many pastors and theologians throughout the centuries. For instance, this passage has been cited, in prosperity gospel churches, as a defense for why God wants us to become wealthy; God blesses us money so that we can make more money! Additionally this scripture has been used to claim that the poor are poor because of their own faults and problems, God gave them all the opportunities in the world to become rich, but they failed to pull themselves up by their boot straps and make something of themselves.

Jesus is not using this parable to recommend to his followers that we should work hard, make all the money we can, to give all we can. Instead, the story is a judgment against those who think they deserve what they earned, and a judgment against those who do not know how precious is the gift that they have been given.

The slaves did nothing to earn their five, two, and one talents. They were given as gifts! What becomes crucial is how they regarded the gifts and what they did with them.

A professor of mine in seminary named Stanley Hauerwas is widely regarded as a radical ethicist in the church. He has made some stunning proposals throughout his career about the need for the church to be the church and reclaim a sense of its radical nature in order to return to its mission for the kingdom of God.

Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas

He argued that we, as pastors, should never perform funerals in funeral homes because the services of death and resurrection should always take place where baptisms happen. He argued that we, as pastors, should never marry strangers off the street but take the time to know them intimately before bringing them together in holy marriage. He argued that we, as pastors, should remove American Flags from sanctuaries because the flag’s presence blurs the line between what our country expects of us, and what God requires of us. But one of the strangest proposals he ever made has to do with money and the church.

When we receive new members we often have them stand up here in front of the church like Tom and Linda will do a little bit later and take vows of membership. They promise to serve the church with their time and gifts for the glory of God. We then applaud them and shake their hands after the service.

Hauerwas believes that we should add a new requirement to membership. Whenever we receive new members, they should stand in front of the entire gathered body and announce how much money they earn in a calendar year… (pause for dramatic emphasis)

“Hi, I’m Taylor Mertins. Born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, I am a transplant to the Staunton region and I really enjoy the pace of life here. I serve as a pastor in the United Methodist Church and I make $36,500 a year.”

His reasoning behind this is two-fold: It would allow the church to have greater transparency regarding the wealthy during times of need. If everyone knows who the bigger earners are, they can seek them out when someone in the community is in dire straits, or if the church needs immediate help with something.

It would also allow the church to recognize the great gaps of wealth within the local congregation regarding the rich and the poor. When a family joins that make very little during the year, it would allow us to know who it is that we can truly help by consolidating our resources. We, as Americans, do such a good job at trying to cover up our socioeconomic status that we are blind to those who are in need in the pews next to us. 

What do you think? Should we adopt his plan here at St. John’s?

I’m not so sure. I understand his idea on principle, but I believe that it would result in us abusing one another and it would prevent us from viewing everyone as part of the body of Christ. If you discovered that one of the humble women in the church was a millionaire wouldn’t you treat her differently? If you discovered that one of the men who appears very wealthy has no money at all, wouldn’t you treat him differently?

Yet, at the same time, I really like Hauerwas’ idea. It would push us to be more vulnerable with one another about what we have to offer, and what we need. So I’m going to offer a slightly different proposal. What if, when we received new members, we required them to share their talents with us?

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Jesus’ parable of the talents uses money, but in the big picture it has nothing to do with money at all. God, as the master, has given each of us unique abilities and talents that we have been tasked to use in the world for the kingdom. To some he has given more talents than to others, which is to say the hand is not the foot, nor is the arm like the leg, in the body of Christ. Yet everyone has been blessed with some talent that is beautiful, wonderful, and incredibly important. 

Jesus’ disciples are called to do the work that Jesus has given us to do — work as simple and hard as learning to tell the truth and learning to love our enemies. Such work is the joy that our master invites us to share with him.

The slaves that earned more with their talents did so because they worked with what they had. No effort is made to describe how the slaves doubled their talents, but that they worked hard with the talents the master had given them. However the one talent slave rationalizes his failure to do anything with the talent entrusted to him by blaming the master! How often are we guilty of the same thing? —Blaming God for the failures that are indeed our fault.

Since the beginning of the church is has been a routine for Christians to excuse themselves by protesting that their gifts are too modest to be significant. How can little ole me possibly do anything for God’s kingdom?

Let me assure each of you of the contrary: You have been given gifts, wonderful and unique talents, that are begging to be used in the church for the world, and in the world for the church. You might not recognize them as such, you might feel insecure about whatever they are, but God has endowed you with the gifts so that they can be used. If you hide them inwardly, if you dig a hole in the ground, you fail to make good on the investment that God has made in you.

Jesus insists, through the parable, that the talents that God has provided us are to be used and implemented to their full ability. Christian discipleship is not something that we can just hope our pastors or churches can carry us through, but instead requires hard work. It demands that we take a good look at our lives and talents and ask how we can put them to use for God’s kingdom.

What talents do you see in your life? Are you a teacher who has the gift of sharing the Good News of God’s Word with others? A carpenter who has the gift to repair and shape shelters for others? A prayer warrior who has the gift to pray for our church, our community, and our world? A financially savvy individual who has the gift of helping others learn how to manage and invest their money? A nurse or doctor who has the gift of healing and presence?

I see a church full of Christians who have gifts that God has given.

Church should be like a great talent show where we share with others what God has given us, so that we can them employ those gifts for the kingdom. What are you doing with your talents?

Amen.

Devotional – 1 Corinthians 12.4-7

Devotional:

1 Corinthians 12.4-7

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 

Weekly Devotional Image

After responding to a call of ministry, the United Methodist Church requires candidates to be examined by the Board of Ordained Ministry before they are placed at a church/agency. This is done to ensure that candidates are properly prepared for the many demands of local ministry and that they are able to articulate the doctrines and principles of our church in such a way that it can be conveyed to a variety of congregations.

While many of us prepared for our interviews we heard horror stories about the difficulty of some questions that might await us: “Pretend that I just walked to your office and found out my husband had been cheating on me. How would you respond?” Or “Name the Old Testament justifications for infant baptism…” Or (one of my personal favorites) “How would you explain the Trinity (Father, Son, Spirit) to a middle school student?”

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I was blessed to not have to answer the Trinitarian question, one that regularly knocks candidates out of their comfort zone while interviewing. I know of at least one person who was delayed from passing their board because they were unable to answer the question in a way that satisfied the board. How would you answer the question? If a young Christian happened to approach you after church and ask about the trinity, what would you say?

One of the ways that I have explained it in the past is as follows: “The Trinity is like a band playing music. There are three distinct and unique elements necessary for music to be created. You need musicians, instruments, and written music. Without one the whole thing falls apart. Though they are different, they are all necessary for music to be played and enjoyed.” However, this example, for as much as I like it, is inherently flawed.

I have heard others attempt to explain the trinity as 1) a stool with three legs; with all three the chair can stand upright, but if you remove one the chair will not stand; 2) a woman who is at different times a mother, a daughter, and friend to different people; 3) a bicycle that has gears, brakes, and wheels, in order to propel itself forward. Yet all of these do not do justice to the incredible blessing and mystery that is the Trinity.

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Perhaps we’ve become so concerned with being able to explain how the Trinity works, that we no longer know how to affirm the trinity as mystery. We elevate definitions and details over and against beauty and reverence. I cannot explain the trinity, I cannot explain the infinite wonder of God because I am a finite human being. But, like Paul, I can say, “There are a variety of gifts, but the same Spirit; there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.”

What do you think is more important: Being able to explain the trinity? Or recognizing that the One God has blessed us with different gifts in different ways so that we can be the body of Christ for the world?

Today, let us strive to be people who recognize the gifts that we have been given by the Triune God. Let us look at those gifts to see the beauty of God’s mystery in our lives.