(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

Isaiah 55.1-5

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

I’ve been here in Woodbridge for about a month and I feel like I’m finally getting my bearings. I know where all of the essential stores are; I know what roads to avoid during rush hour; and I’m even starting to learn most of your names!

To preach properly you need to know your people.” I heard that over and over again in seminary and it’s so true. You’ve got to know the people before you can just stand up and tell them what God is saying. And so, over the last month, I’ve tried to learn a lot about a lot of you. And not just your names… I know who makes the best food and where it’s kept in the church kitchen. I know that a lot of the real meetings happen in the parking lot and not the conference room. And for a good number of you, I’ve learned what drew you here in the first place. But for as much as I want to learn about you, I also want to learn about the people who are not here yet.

This means I want to know about our community, what makes it tick, and how it transforms the people who call it home.

For instance: I’ve gone to a few local businesses just to ask questions without expectations. I’ve started conversations with total strangers in restaurants just to ask questions without expectations. And a few weeks ago, my wife, son, and I went to the most culturally relevant location in the area: Potomac Mills.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Potomac Mills is one of the largest outlet malls in the country and it is what smaller malls aspire to be. It’s huge. It’s overwhelming. It’s capitalism at it’s finest.

Anyway, we got in the car and drove over to the mall with our stroller. When we parked and strapped Elijah in, we headed for the nearest door and entered the great arena of commerce. Now, some of you are probably wondering what we were looking for at the mall, you’re pondering the specific item we were searching for. But here’s the thing: we weren’t looking for anything. We just wanted to see what the mall was like.

And now some of you are thinking that we’re crazy.

It took a long time to do the whole loop at the mall, particularly with all of the random people and families moving about like fish against the current. And the thing that surprised me most wasn’t how many stores there were, or even how many people there were, but how quiet it was.

It was a strange and eerie experience to be in a place with so many people and have it be so subdued. At first I was worried that my ears were stopped up, but then I realized that it was so quiet because so many people were on their cell phones.

And that’s honestly what made it so hard to navigate, not the number of people, but the fact that most of the people had their heads down in their hands and were completely oblivious to everything else going on. Even the venders in their middle kiosks could have cared less about us as we milled about Potomac Mills.

And I can’t help but wonder if that’s what Isaiah felt like trying to reach God’s people. The prophet of the Lord attempts to interrupt the sensibilities of the crowd with a declaration, but the people were in Babylon, far removed from home, and they had other things to worry about. Like a crowd of people at the mall focused on their phones, perhaps Isaiah struggled to captivate the attention of the passing people with his enthusiasm and excitement. Picture, if you can, a person doing everything he or she can to convey the truth to a group of people who are far happier with a lie.

That’s Isaiah in our scripture today.

Attention! If you’re thirsty, come to the water. And those of you without money, come, buy, and eat! Why do you keep spending your money on things that cannot bring you satisfaction? Listen to the Lord so that you may live. God is making a covenant, a promise, to love us even when we cannot love ourselves. God is blessing us daily, God is glorifying us, and most of the time we completely miss it.

Today many, if not most, of us are so caught up in our gadgets and spider-webs of false connections that we really feel empty inside. Or we are spending our money and our savings on products and commodities that offer no real satisfaction. Or we believe that so long as we ascertain the right car, or the right job, or the right spouse, we will finally find that one missing thing to give meaning to our lives.

But in the kingdom of God, the normal rules of commerce and capitalism do not apply. In fact, they have been completely overturned.

Unlike just about everything else in the world, at God’s celebration we need not bring goods or money in order to procure a place at the table. Instead, water, bread, wine, and food will be provided without cost. Whereas we think that who we are, and what we’ve earned, and what we’ve saved defines us, God only requires that we bring two things: our thirst and our hunger.

Unlike the world, where many of us prefer to fellowship and worship and commune and eat with those whose income and status and skin tone are similar to our own, God’s vision of life in the kingdom is completely different.

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On Monday morning we opened our doors to children and youth from the community for Vacation Bible School. I, like a fool, stood by the entrance in my adult size Batman costume and welcomed everyone for a week of experiencing the love of God through Hero Central. Each day the kids learned about what it takes to be a hero in God’s kingdom: heroes have heart, courage, wisdom, hope, and strength. They did crafts and science experiments, they danced and sang, and they feasted around a common table. They learned bible stories about King David, Abigail, Jesus, the Beatitudes, and Pentecost.

On our last day I was sitting at the table with all of the kids, when one of them approached me with a huge smile on her face and all she said was, “I wish church was like this every day.”

I imagine that she wished church could be like that every day because Vacation Bible School was fun and exciting, but I think there was more to her wish than that alone. This week, the distractions of phones and the siren call of social media disappeared. Instead of a mall filled with adults staring into screens, the children experienced a church full of adults who got down on their level to share with them the love of God.

Instead of an experience where everyone looked the same, earned the same, and sounded the same, the children experienced a church full of disciples who could not have been more different from one another.

This week, our children and youth caught a glimpse of the kingdom of God made manifest on earth in a way that so few of us ever get to experience. Because in God’s kingdom, the place that Isaiah beckons the crowds to experience, invitations are made to all people: the rich and the poor, the old and the young, the perfect and the broken. The beautiful wonder and glory of this scripture is the fact that God welcomes ALL to the table. Always.

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During the time of Isaiah, and today, so much time is wasted on sustaining existence. We hear about the next new thing and we become obsessed even though we know that when it finally arrives we will be distracted by the next new thing coming down the pike. We ask ourselves questions that are predicated on maintaining the status quo. We go to things like the mall hoping for consumerism to fill a hole that no amount of money, or goods, or experiences ever can.

But God offers us something different. God looks at the shallow nature of our lives, God examines the mistakes and sins of our past, God evaluates what our minds stay focused on, and instead of leaving us to our own devices, God shares with us a new covenant. God makes a promise to be with us in spite of us.

God shows us a life that is based not on blessing the wealthy, but on protecting the poor.

God offers a covenant in which greed is shunned, and humility is glorified.

God presents a promise in which divisions are destroyed and community is congratulated.

Isaiah pleaded with the people of the Lord to open their eyes to the truth that no product could ever offer. Isaiah interrupted the distracted crowds with a vision of the kingdom on earth where those who are different are brought together in unity around a table where God is the host.

Opening up the doors of this church for a week of Vacation Bible School is a radical thing. We gave the children food, and education, and time for no other reason than the fact that God loves them. Compared to the priorities of the world, this place was strange this week.

Gathering together in a space like this for worship is a radical thing. While the world is consumed by the next new thing and a false community you can keep in your pocket, the church stands as a witness to the truth of God’s dominion. We lift up our prayers and we bend our knees because we know that what we believe shapes how we behave.

Coming to the table to feast on the Lord’s Supper is a radical thing. We search daily for products and goods to fill the holes we feel, we spend our time with people who look like us and sound like us. And yet at this simple meal, we are invited to a table with people who are completely unlike us. At this meal we get to taste a little bit of heaven on earth and we receive the only thing that can bring real satisfaction.

Today we live in a world where we are forever asking “Who gets in?” What does it take to earn a spot at the table? What kind of grades do I need to make to get into college? How long will I have to wait before it’s my turn?

But in the kingdom of God, at this table, all are welcome. Always. Amen.

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Too Busy For Sabbath – Isaiah 58.9b-14

Isaiah 58.9b-14

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the streets to live in. If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

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Whenever you get a group of pastors together, competition breaks out whether we want it to or not. So much of what we do take place on Sundays and therefore we never get to see our peers at work. So when we gather for a meeting or a conference, we tend to show off in order to make ourselves feel better.

At Annual Conference this year, the time when all of the United Methodists from Virginia get together to talk about the state of the denomination, I had lunch with a few clergy colleagues and the sizing up started almost immediately. We asked questions like, “What’s the best sermon you preached in the last year?” and “How is God blessing your ministry?” which is code for “How many people do you have in worship?” We listened as each person tried to demonstrate how their work was bearing more fruit than the other people at the table. And as the meal came to its conclusion someone asked, “If you could change one thing about your church without any consequences, what would it be?”

What a great question! The table was strangely silent for a few moments while each of us prepared our answers. I immediately pictured all of you sitting in worship and I started whittling down my list to the number one change.

My first thought was practical: If I could change one thing without consequence I would force everyone to tithe. It would demonstrate our trust that the Lord will provide, it would help us bless others in this community through financial support, and it would help remove a lot of stress from my life. But then I realized that was a selfish change, and frankly one that wouldn’t make me sound very pastoral in front of my peers.

My second thought was simple: If I could change one thing without consequence I would force everyone who sits in the back of the sanctuary to move up to the front of the sanctuary! It would make our church closer, it would create a fuller sense of connection, and it would save me from having to yell all the way to the back of the church. But then I realized that was a selfish change, and frankly one that wouldn’t make me sound very Christian in front of my peers.

So I settled for something like: I would help the church to see that we are all in this together. That we have a responsibility to open our eyes to the community around us and believe that its more about serving them, and less about the church serving us.

The group nodded in silent affirmation. And then we listened to the next answer and the next answer. With each successive response we heard more and more ideas that could reshape the entire identity of the local church. Someone said that she would force her congregation to spend time each week serving the poor. Another said that he would require every person to go on at least one mission trip a year. And so on.

But my friend Drew remained silent. Sitting at the edge of the table he listened intently as each pastor put forth his or her opinion, and I could tell that he was really thinking through his response. And when all of us had finally finished, when we had all laid out our best to impress, we all turned our heads to Drew to hear his answer.

He sighed and said, “I would make everyone rest.”

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The Lord speaks to Isaiah and is perfectly clear: If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord.

Today, we are a far cry away from the type of Sabbath observance that took place in the time of the Old Testament. We barely even have a conception of what it means to be sabbatical on a regular basis. For Jews, to this day, the Sabbath happens every week, beginning on Friday night. For 24 hours everything changes. They gather together as families and friends. They remember who they are and whose they are. They experience God in time set apart.

For the Jews, Sabbaths are their greatest cathedrals and the holiest of holies is something that no one can take away. Instead of placing their hope and faith in things like buildings and ministry programs, they believe in the power of time that is different. They remember that the Lord created the world in six days and called each day “good.” But when the Lord came to the seventh day, the day of rest, God called it “holy.” In the holiness of the Jewish Sabbath they discover that time, not a place, but a time of difference makes all the difference.

We, on the other hand, don’t know what the Sabbath is any more. For those of us of the more mature-in-faith persuasion can remember a time with blue laws, when Sundays were different than the other days during the week. There was no going to the super market after church. There was no matinee showing of a movie on Sunday afternoon. No little league sports had games scheduled on the Lord’s Day.

But that time is long gone.

Now Sunday is likely the busiest day of the week. We frantically wake up on Sunday morning and get breakfast going, we wrestle with the kids to get out of bed and get dressed. We plead with them to find some article of clothing not covered in wrinkles. We jam into the car and arrive in the parking lot as the first hymn is being offered. We try to pay attention during worship, but whenever the pastor is foolish enough to call for times of contemplative silence, we can’t help ourselves from listing all of the things we need to get done this afternoon in our head. When worship ends we pile up in our cars and head out for lunch or back to the house to finish all the chores we neglected during the week. And before we know it we have to start working on dinner, we have to berate the children to finish their homework, we have to pack the lunches for Monday morning, and (if we’re lucky) we have time to all sit down in front of the television until our eyes dry up and we head to bed.

How hard is it to do anything these days, and in particular on Sunday? With our frantic and overly programmed schedules we find it harder and harder to find the time to do anything. By way of example, it took us months to figure out a time for our revamped youth group to meet. We debated meeting on Sunday evenings but that interfered with homework and family time. Fridays were out because of football games and other sport activities. Mondays were out because of band performances. Tuesdays we out because Scouts. And so on. It took a frightening amount of time to find the right time for our Youth, and even though we identified 7pm on Wednesday nights as the best time, it still prevents some of our Youth from attending on a regular basis.

And this isn’t just about youth. We adults are just as guilty about over-stuffing our daily lives with activities to the point that when the Sabbath arrives, we need to use it to make up for all the time we lost from Monday through Saturday.

We fill our lives with activities and programs because we are so desperate to find meaning in our lives. We assume that we must have something to do in order to make good on the time we’ve got. We use our busyness to feel confident that we are not wasting time. We go and go and go, and without Sabbath we fail to be who God is calling us to be.

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For six days every week we live under the tyranny of to-dos and the empire of expectations, for six days every week we try to dominate our duties and lasso our lives. Can you imagine what your life would feel like if, on the Sabbath, you gave up the temptation to control every moment? Can you picture how it would look to treat our time as the gift that it really is?

John Wesley was fond of telling a story about a young Christian who was extremely committed to observing the Sabbath. On one Saturday evening, as the sun was preparing to set, the young man sat down at his kitchen table and began shining his shoes for worship the next morning. He shined and shined, but ran out of polish and had to start looking through the house until he found another container. And as he prepared to start polishing the second shoe he looked out the window and discovered that the sun had set and evening had started. So he put his shoes away, one perfectly shined and the other scratched and dirty. And the next morning at church he wore those two seemingly different shoes for everyone to see, because he would not “work” on the Sabbath.

Is that the kind of Sabbath that God calls us to observe? Is it strict obedience to a principle, no matter what, that will make us ride upon the heights of the earth?

Observing the Sabbath is less about avoiding certain behaviors and more about being intentional about what we do with the time God gives us. It is far too easy to fill our Sundays with menial work that was neglected during the week. There is too great a temptation to use the Lord’s Day to serve our own interests. Many of us would consider ourselves too busy for Sabbath.

The Sabbath is supposed to be about joy! It’s not about sitting in a stuffy room listening to a preacher telling you that you’re a sinner and you need to repent. It’s not about neglecting to serve others in need. It’s not a legalistic absolute.

The Sabbath is a time apart, a time of thankfulness and joy. It is the one day a week we are called to break free from the oppression of our stifling work. It is a time to gather with the family of God to give thanks for all that we have. We are called to fill our Sabbaths with the kind of behaviors and activities that give us the strength to face the other days of the week. It is a time of rest. It is a time of holiness. It is a time where we can use recreation for our re-creation.

Creation is not an act that happened once, long ago, in the past. The act of bringing the world into existence is a continuous process. We rest once a week, because every week is a repeat of God’s creative and imaginative work. We rest because God rested. Every Sabbath is an opportunity to be recreated by the Spirit to be who God is calling us to be.

If we refrain from abusing the Sabbath, from using it as another day to get everything done; if we call the Sabbath a joy and if we honor it, not to serve our own interests; then we shall take delight in the Lord. We shall be able to faithfully sing, “it is well with my soul.” We shall be fed with the heritage of all who have come before us, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Amen.

Devotional – Luke 9.35

 

Devotional

Luke 9.35

Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
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When I was in seminary we had all sorts of assignments that were designed to get us engaged with scripture. When I took a class on the gospel according to Mark, I was required to read all 16 chapters out loud, in my spare time, at least once a week. When I was learning about biblical Greek, I was tasked with memorizing the Lord’s Prayer in Greek and I would mutter it under my breath everywhere I walked on Duke’s campus. And when I was enrolled in a class on the art of preaching, I had to work with a group to come up with a strange and exciting way to bring a scriptural text to life.

My group broke up parts of the worship service; one person would do the call to worship, one person would lead the rest of the class in singing a few hymns, one person was responsible for all of the prayers, and I was assigned the “sermon” section. Rather than waxing lyrical about the particular text (Jesus’ Transfiguration) we agreed that I should just retell the story in an exciting and dynamic way.

I prayed over the text during the days leading up to the worship service and decided that I would tell the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration from Peter’s perspective, from the future looking back on the incredible event. Like a lot of group of assignments, it felt like everything was just thrown together, but we were confident that God could make something out of our worship.

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When the day of the assignment arrived, everyone in the group nailed their respective parts and I eventually had to stand before the gathered class and give my rendition of the Transfiguration. As I went on and on as an older Peter remembering the past, I could tell that the class was starting to lose interest, so I started elevating my volume and delivery. I began building the story up through a crescendo until that pivotal moment when Jesus was clothed in white and everyone in the room went wide eyed. I, at first, thought that my command over the scripture had blown the class away, but I soon realized what had happened: While I was talking, one of my peers had slowly started to dim the lights in the room until it was rather dark (I was so focused on what I was saying that I didn’t even notice it). But then at the exact moment I described the dazzling whiteness of Jesus’ garment, she turned on the projector and I started to glow.

Transfiguration Sunday is an important event in the liturgical calendar as we bask in the glory of Christ right before we enter the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Important for us is a willingness to be knocked back by the dazzling power of Jesus’ life and work. We take the time to be blown away, just like Peter was, by how God’s love really knows no bounds.

This week, as we prepare to celebrate the Transfiguration, let us look for moments where God’s glory shines in our midst. We might see it in a perfect sunset, the laughter of a child, or in the still small silence of prayer. And whenever it happens, let us give thanks for the glory of the Lord.

 

God Is God And We Are Not – Sermon on Psalm 24

Psalm 24

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers. Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully. They will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. Such is the company of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.

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Be careful.” That’s what they kept saying when they found out I was invited to preach at a church in the heart of Detroit. I had been living in Birmingham, Michigan (a rather wealthy suburb north of Detroit) helping serve a church for the summer when I received the opportunity to fill in at another church one Sunday. And as soon as I was asked, all the warnings started coming in: “Be careful” “Park as close as possible to the church” “Keep your wallet in your front pocket.

I remember thinking these people were crippled by fear, how bad could it really be? We were talking about driving into Detroit on a Sunday morning to preach at a church…

When the morning arrived I was filled with excitement. I picked out the perfect bow tie to go with my blazer, hoping to assert my authority regardless of my young age, I had a prepared a theologically profound manuscript sermon, hoping that it would get people to shout “amen!” from the pews, and I spent the long drive down Woodward Avenue in silence, hoping to boost my holiness before the service began.

The closer I got to the church, the stranger I began to feel. I hadn’t noticed it at first, but the longer I drove, the less people I saw on the streets. The buildings went from inviting homes and businesses to abandoned shells of carpentry. The streets went from well maintained to pot holes that required a car to drive up on the sidewalk in order to avoid.

In a matter of minutes I had gone from “Pleasantville” to a post-apocalyptic movie set, and my excitement was quickly replaced by fear.

By the time I pulled in the parking lot, I realized that I hadn’t seen another human being for at least ten minutes. The streets had been largely deserted leading up to Cass UMC, and it was strangely silent when I stepped out of my car.

So here I was, standing in the heart of Detroit, in a bowtie and blazer, with a bible and sermon tucked under my arm, completely alone on a Sunday morning.

My footsteps across the concrete reverberated in echoes through the abandoned buildings flanking the church and even though it was a bright sunny day, I felt like I was walking down a dark alley in the middle of the night. The building itself was an architectural masterpiece having been built in 1883 with Tiffany’s stained glass windows, though I could tell from the street that bullet holes had cut through the once remarkable windows.

When I reached out my hand to open the doors, the height of my new fears were realized: It was locked.

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I knew no one from the church, I had no way to contact anyone, and all of the warnings started to really flow through my mind. But I did what any good pastor would do, I sat down on the front steps and waited for someone to open the door.

30 minutes later, a disheveled looking old man, the first person I had seen in a long time, peeked from around the corner, walked up the steps, and unlocked the front door without saying a word. I wandered around the building until I found the sanctuary, searched in vain for a worship bulletin, and resigned myself to sit down in a chair by the altar.

During the next hour, the most random assortment of people started flowing in through the sanctuary doors. The church, once renown in the heart of Detroit, was being filled with people who slept outside the night before, people who had no money to put in the offering plate, and people who were having conversations with themselves at a volume loud enough for everyone else to experience.

A group of 7 older black women arranged themselves on folding chairs near the front, and without really discussing it they all flipped their hymnals to the same page and started to sing. A man with wrinkled fingers was hunched over a piano in the corner struggling to keep up with the singing, and a young man had seated himself behind a drum-set hidden in the corner, and was wailing away to a song that only he could hear.

When the first hymn ended, the women huddled together to pick another hymn and began singing. At some point in the middle of their fourth hymn, with the pianist still planking away, and the drummer smashing the cymbals, a gentleman stood up in the middle of the sanctuary with his eyes trained on me. He walked down the main aisle slowly and deliberately until he was towering over me and then declared, “Son, if you don’t start talking, they ain’t liable to quit singing.

The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, from the sea to the mountains, from the rivers to the deserts, from the people to the animals; for the Lord has founded life upon the earth. Who then shall worship the Lord in holiness? And who shall stand with the Lord in the holiest of places? Only those who have clean hands, and pure hearts, those who do not lift up their souls to what is false, who do not break their promises. They will receive a blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation. Such is the company of those who seek the Lord.

I stood up after the end of the next hymn, and grabbed the hand held microphone to start participating in worship. I felt like a fool standing in my khakis and blazer, with my bowtie tilted just slightly to the side. I felt ridiculous with my over examined sermon under my arm, and bible in my hand. I felt like I didn’t deserve to stand before the congregation, but all of their eyes were on me. (just like all of yours are right now)

I took off the jacket and tie, rolled up my sleeves, ditched the sermon on my chair, and let the Holy Spirit go to work.

Let us pray” I began, and before I could start praying for our service, the people started shouting out their own prayers. “O Lord, help this boy to preach.” “Yes Lord, show us your mercy.”My God show me your glory!” “Remove our sins, give us your Spirit, clean our hearts!” “Your will be done!” “Have thine own way Lord!” “Help this boy preach, preach preach.

It was only after a few moments of silence that I finally said “amen” without having added any of my own prayers.

I preached on the apostle Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, about the new creation that comes in knowing Christ. I talked about moments that transform our lives. I said things like “there is a new life in Christ, but just because we find Christ it doesn’t mean our life will get better, but that we are called to make other lives better.” And instead of the typical, and silent, congregation I was used to, the people kept shouting at me while I preached. “Ain’t that the truth!” “Yes Lord!” “We know it, we know it” “Lord, give him strength to preach.” “Speak through him God.

When I got around to the close of the service, when I offered a benediction to the congregation, when the final amen was uttered, I heard them say in return, “Thank you Jesus.”

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Lift up your heads, O gates! Open up you ancient doors! the King of glory is coming. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, merciful and majestic, the Lord. Jesus Christ the author of salvation, the Good News, the Messiah. The Holy Spirit full of wisdom and truth, giver of life, and partner to our prayers. Lift up your heads, O gates! Open up you ancient doors! The King of glory is coming! Who is the King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.

We can dress the part, we can read all the right books, we can memorize all the hymns and prayers, but unless we are looking for holiness in our lives, unless we are ready to bow down to the King of glory, then we are forgetting the truth: God is God and we are not.

Many of us are good Christians, we pray for our friends and family, we come to church, we put money in the plate, but there is a profound difference between believing we are holy, and wanting to be holy.

When I arrived at that church in Detroit years ago, I foolishly thought I was bringing something to them. With my well prepared outfit and sermon, I made the assumption that I was bringing God with me, nice and shiny, like a school project. I became my own main character in the story of worship, and it prevented me from seeing the King of glory.

When I stood up in the pulpit to proclaim the words, the people did not see a young man with a seminary education, they did not see some white fool trying his best to not pass out, they saw a vessel for the Lord. Their prayers were not to me, but for the Lord to work through me. The recognized the great division between God and me, and knew that Jesus was the bridge between the two.

They knew that God is God and we are not.

In our contemporary American culture, we tend to view ourselves as the center of the universe.

We assume that everything revolves around us, and that so long as our needs are being me, then everything else should be fine.

We believe that if we wear the right clothes, and get the right education, that holiness will follow accordingly.

We feel holy for giving up an hour every week to sit in a place like this and sing hymns, offer prayers, and listen to a sermon.

That church in Detroit had something that I never knew I needed: They believed that God was the center of the story, that God had the power to transform their lives, and that God really was the King of glory.

Too many of my friends have left the church because they “didn’t get anything out of it.” They might try different styles of worship and different denominations, but if they don’t get anything out of it, they will rarely return. However, church isn’t about what we get out of it, its about what God gets out of us.

Believing we are already holy limits God’s power to make us holy.

It is in the recognition of the great divide between humanity and the Lord that we can let Jesus get to work on our hearts and souls. It is in the great admission of Jesus as the King of glory we start to see ourselves, not as the center of the universe, but instruments for God’s love to be heard in the world. It is in the words of our worship that we recognize the Holy Spirit’s movement in our midst and our lives start to change.

If we remain in the assumption of our holiness, then our lives will stay the same.

But if we truly desire for the Lord to make us holy, then our lives will be transformed. Amen.

The Johns – Sermon on John 15.9-11, 1 John 2.15-17, and Revelation 21.1-5

John 15.9-11

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

1 John 2.15-17

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

Revelation 21.1-5

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

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“Taylor, the bishop is appointing you to St. John’s United Methodist Church in Staunton, Virginia. We believe the church fits with your gifts and graces and we are excited to see what the Holy Spirit can do through you there.” Those were the words used to let me know where I would be spending the next few years of my life. I remember how I felt with the phone next to my ear and Lindsey by my side when I found out that I would be coming here to serve this church.

Obviously, for the next few days all I could think about was the church and the community. What would you all be like? Would we enjoy living here? What would we do for fun? How would you respond to me as your pastor?

Of course I Googled the church, searched the church name in the local newspaper databases, and even looked up the address of the parsonage. And for as many things as I could discover, more questions began to develop to the point where I had to just stop and accept that this is where I was going.

However, one question remained in the back of my mind during the months leading up to my first Sunday. I was fine letting everything else go, I was content with the unknown, except for one thing: Why St. John’s?

Now I don’t mean why this church out of all the churches in the Virginia conference, though I have wondered about that at times. What I mean is this: Why is the church named St. John’s?

Do any of you know? Church naming often carries an interesting history. Like when a group of people from a Baptist church grow frustrated with another group and decide to leave and start a new church with the ironic name of Harmony Baptist.

Or like what we have here in town with 1st Presbyterian, 2nd Presbyterian, 3rd Presbyterian, etc. I would love to know the story behind that.

Anyway, why are we called St. John’s?

The story goes that a long time ago there was a particularly advantageous District Superintendent who dreamed of 4 new churches in the Staunton District. The population was booming in the valley and he believed it was time for the Methodist Church to start breaking ground and forming church homes for new people. He wanted 4 new churches and he wanted them to be named after the gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Though only two of them ever came to fruition: Mark and John.

Now, is that really how we got our name? I have no idea, but thats the story everyone seems to tell.

I want to know if thats the story we want to tell. That the name of this blessed house of the Lord got its name from some guy in the past who wanted to leave his mark in Staunton. Or do we want to take ownership of our name, and live into the reality of what it means to be St. John’s?

Our name is part of who we are, it is a part of our very identity, for better or worse. If we were First UMC I would expect that we were the first to break ground in Staunton, that we would be leading the community in what it means to love one another. If we were Harmony UMC I would expect a church full of people who agreed on everything all the time, no matter what. If we were Wesley UMC I would expect that John Wesley would be fundamental to our mission and work in the kingdom.

But if we call ourselves St. John’s, then who are we?

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On the right side of our sanctuary we have three stained glass windows that I call The Johns. We have John the Evangelist, John of Patmos, and John the Presbyter. Do they represent three different and distinct men? Are they in fact all the same person, just being shown throughout the different decades?

Early Christian tradition held that John was one of the original 12 disciples who actually lived a long life and was not killed for his faith like the others. It is believed that he was responsible for writing the gospel according to John, the letters 1-3 John, and the final book of the New Testament Revelation. Of course modern scholars debate as to the particular authorship and whether or not one man was responsible for all of these different writings.

What is important for us is the fact that we affirm all of the writing as canon and life-giving, that Christians for centuries have come to discover the living God in the words attributed to John, and that we will continue to live into our discipleship through them.

Our first window displays the young John as the Evangelist. Today when we hear the word evangelism we tend to picture people converting others to follow Christ, but in its most simple meaning, an evangelist is someone who shares the Good News, and in this case, it came through a written account of Jesus life and ministry.

We see a young John holding a chalice and the image of an eagle. The chalice serves to emphasize the importance of the sacrament, and the pouring out of Jesus blood for us. Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus’ atoning sacrifice is a particular focus and theme. Reflecting on Jesus life later, John could remember everything through the lens of the resurrection, and we see the importance of Jesus’ life here in the chalice.

The other detail, the eagle, is very interesting. In Revelation, a book we will talk about shortly, there is a brief section where John describes four winged creatures from his dream. Each of them have come to represent a specific gospel and it’s respective author: Matthew is a man with wings, or an angel; Mark is a lion; Luke is an ox; and John is the eagle.

Whenever our eyes fall to this window we are called to remember the Father’s love in Christ Jesus. Like the winged eagle flying high in the sky we look up to the kind of love that Jesus exemplified and strive to live accordingly. The great sacrifice was made so that our joy could be complete in and with one another as we look on eternity without flinching as we journey toward the goal of communing with the Lord.

John the Evangelist wrote what he did to remember for us what his master taught him: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.

Our second window, the one to the right, contains John as the Presbyter. Presbyter comes from the greek word presbuteros which means “elder.” As John grew older and continued to play an integral role in the formation of the early church, it became necessary for him to write letters concerning the faith.

In the window we see a mature John with a quill and parchment. Like we still do today, whenever we encounter the struggles of fellow disciples, we strive to help them through their trials and tribulations. For John, having lived with Christ and experienced the true power of the resurrection, he devoted himself to the early Christians and helped them to understand the importance of love.

He wrote things like: “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” Only a man speaking from a life of wisdom could make such a statement. The desires of flesh and the prides in riches only serve to destroy us because they wither away. All of the false things that we put our faith and hope in are passing away, but the love of God endures forever and ever.

Whenever we glance to this window of John as the Presbyter, we are called to remember the value of wisdom and what it means to grow together. Being Christian is not something that can be done in isolation, but instead can only be fruitful and life-giving if we disciple as a community. John wrote letters to encourage and remind the faithful what it means to be faithful. As disciples we have the responsibility to build one another up for kingdom work.

John the Presbyter wrote to Christian communities about what faithful living was all about: those who do the will of God live forever.

The third window, in the middle, contains John on Patmos. After a life of faith, John was exiled away to Patmos, a small Greek island in the Aegean Sea where he wrote about his visions. The book of Revelation contains fantastic imagery of the way God has, is, and will move  in the world. Our final John is older with a fiery city at his feet, and the new Jerusalem above his head with the lamb.

The Lord gave John certain visions and told him to write them down because they were trustworthy and true. Our window displays the height of the revelation when God will make all things new. A holy city, the new Jerusalem, will come down from heaven. This is where God will dwell with the people, God will wipe away all of our tears. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. The first things will pass away because God will make all things new.

In our window we see the former things, the earthly passions of the world at the bottom passing away. But God has not, and will not, abandon us to our own devices. The new city at the top will reign and the kingdom will be forever. 

Whenever our eyes fall upon this window we remember that the Lord is with us now and forever. That even in our death we will come closer to the new heaven and the new earth that the Lord has promised. In the midst of our grief and suffering now we can still give thanks to the Lord for that day when he will make all things new. This window calls us to trust the Lord just like John did throughout his life.

John on Patmos wrote down the visions the Lord had provided so that others would come to know what the future holds: The Lord will dwell with us and make all things new. 

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Who are we? A group of Christians who get together week after week to rediscover what it means to follow Christ? A ragtag collection of disciples who need to find a little more light in our lives?

If we want to live into our name, then we need a better story than being named by a District Superintendent. If we want to be the St. John’s that God is calling us to be, then we need to reclaim what that name means for us.

We are St. John’s. That very name carries with it the history of what our church has done for this community. Wherever I go in Staunton I love to tell people that I serve as the pastor here at St. John’s because our name is immediately met with recognition; “My children went to Preschool there!” “My wife and I were married in that sanctuary.” “We buy our Christmas tree from your church every year.”

But we are also more than what we do. Our identity is firmly rooted in the name of John and we should be proud of it. We were named after a man who was called to follow Jesus, remembered the Messiah’s life for other communities, wrote to churches about faithful wisdom, and caught glimpses of future glory. 

Likewise, we are a community of faith that believes in following the Lord, in sharing God’s story with other people, in teaching those younger in the faith about what it means to love, in celebrating the coming day when God will make all things new.

St. John’s; what a perfect name. Amen.

Devotional – Luke 1.37

Devotional:

Luke 1.37

For nothing will be impossible for God.

Weekly Devotional Image

Our parsonage is beautiful. One of the many blessings of serving as a pastor for a United Methodist church is the fact that the local church often provides a parsonage for their pastor and family. I’ll freely admit that I was slightly nervous before arriving in Staunton for the first time because I would have no say about where I was living. Whereas other families can pick and choose a residence based upon their proclivities, I would be stuck with whatever St. John’s provided. However, when I began moving my belongings in, I realized how very fortunate I was.

Providing a parsonage is an incredible act of grace and generosity, one that I try to not take for granted. Whenever I pull into the driveway after a particularly stressful day at the church, I give God thanks for the people of our church community and their willingness to provide such a wonderful gift for my family. I am proud of the parsonage and I look forward to the changing seasons as an opportunity to adorn the house with different holiday elements.

Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I invited everyone from the church community for an open house at the parsonage. Part of our decision was born out of the fact that the parsonage belongs to the church, and we wanted to express our thankfulness for their generosity. (The other part of our decision was born out of the fact that Lindsey talked me into purchasing two Christmas trees this year, and she wanted to show off all of our ornaments.) We worked hard last week to clean and organize everything, prepare an abundance of food, and open our house to those near and dear to us.

Youth playing "Just Dance" during the Open House

Youth playing “Just Dance” during the Open House

At some point during the open house, I was struck by how remarkably blessed we are. In such a short amount of time Lindsey and I have been so welcomed into the local community, and to be surrounded by our church family was a humbling experience. I looked around and saw the people I have prayed with, and for, on a regular basis, I saw the children I have baptized, I saw the individuals I have counseled, and I saw God’s love manifest in the gathered people.

I have known for a long time that I felt called to be a pastor, but I never imagined that it would feel this incredible and graceful. I thought that being part of a loving community to this degree was impossible. But nothing is impossible for God.

The feelings that I experienced yesterday were only possible because of the incredible gift that God gave us in Jesus Christ. Without the impossible possibility of God coming in the form of flesh as a baby in a manger we would not have such a loving community. Without the impossible possibility of God’s unending love and grace, we would not see one another as precious gifts.

In these few remaining days of Advent, I encourage you to look around at the blessings in your life, give thanks to God for the gifts that you have been given, and remember that nothing is impossible for God.

Devotional – 1 Thessalonians 2.9

Devotional:

1 Thessalonians 2.9

You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

Weekly Devotional Image

All Saints’ Day is a strange celebration in the worship life of church. As United Methodists, we will gather together next Sunday to remember those who have gone on to glory; we will honor their lives, deaths, and promised resurrections. For a young pastor the celebration of All Saints is one that I look forward to in order to help the still grieving families mourn appropriately, but it is also a sacred day of privileged preaching that cannot be taken lightly.

I have been a pastor for 1 year and 4 months. It has been a tremendously rewarding experience thus far, and I continually feel that I am exactly where God has called me to be, and doing what God has called me to do. Throughout the first year, no one died in our church community. (They tell you in seminary to prepare yourself for a funeral your first week in the church; but for me that did not happen) We celebrated some incredibly special moments together in worship: baptisms, professions of faith, weddings, confirmation, the Eucharist. But we did not gather together for a funeral. While so many of my clergy colleagues felt fatigued under the tidal wave of death that was striking their local churches, I felt guilty for making it through a year without having to do a funeral.

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Over the last few months, however, we have lost 6 church members in quick succession. While sitting with families in the deep and dark moments of planning a funeral after the loss of a loved one, I was also worried about someone that had just entered the hospital, or received a bleak diagnosis. Death, it seemed, had caught up with us.

Church is often made out to be a place of sacred happiness where people can discover an element of joy and grace that they might not otherwise find. Yet at the same time, the church is one of the last arenas of reality. It used to be that people feared having a quick death. They did so because they feared dying without having the time to be reconciled with their enemies, who were often members of their family, the church and God. Today we fear death. They feared God.

All Saints is a time for us to remember the great promise that God made with us when Jesus was resurrected from the dead: that we are not alone and that Christ has defeated death. This does not mean that we will not die, but it means that death is not the end.

As we prepare for All Saints’ Sunday, let us remember the “labor and toil” of those who have gone on to glory, those who “worked night and day, so that we might not be burdened while we learned about the gospel of God.” Let us remember our own finitude and give thanks to God for not abandoning us. And let us praise the Lord who defeated death so that we might have life.