I AM WHO I AM

Exodus 3.1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up our of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses sais to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

 

I have always loved churches. But before I loved the church for the people in the church, I loved churches because of their sanctuaries. Ever since I was a young child I felt a since of awe and wonder and peace whenever I entered a sanctuary. When I got my driver’s license I would drive myself over to the church in the middle of the week just to spend some time in the sanctuary. And it’s not like I would always kneel at the altar and pour out my soul to God, though I did, I just loved the feeling of being in the sanctuary.

When I was in seminary I was part of a church worship band, and I would drive to the church really early every week just to sit in the sanctuary before the rest of the group arrived. On one such occasion, I was sitting in a random pew and looking at a stained glass window when a man ran into the sanctuary screaming for help.

I immediately rushed to him and we met in the middle of the center aisle and before I had a chance to ask what was wrong he mumbled something out about being afraid and needing help and wanting prayer. I took him by the arm and tried to calm him down but the more I soothed the louder he wailed. Finally I grabbed him by the shoulders and said, “What’s your name?”

He stopped.

“I’m Marcus,” he said almost as if he was asking a question.

“Well then, Marcus, tell me what’s going on.”

Over the next fifteen minutes I listened to him as he described his fear and shock. His wife was pregnant and they had gone to the doctor that morning and heard the heart-beat for the first time. And instead of it filling him with joy, it terrified him. Not because of the responsibilities that were about to fall into his lap, but a terror about what would happen to his baby if he, as a father, died. He told me about how he had never been in a church before, that he never even wanted to go to church, but that he had been walking through the neighborhood crying, and before he knew it he started running. He told me about how he ran and he ran, and all the sudden he wound up in the sanctuary with me.

I listened as he shared his fears, and then I prayed for him. After the “amen” he hugged me and he left almost as quickly as he arrived.

Two weeks later I was driving near the church when I saw him walking down the road and before I knew what I was doing I pulled over, got out of my car and jogged up to him. “Marcus, Marcus!” I yelled, when he turned around it was like I was looking at a different person. He talked and he told me about how he was feeling better and that he was excited about the baby, and that he didn’t know who that God was I kept talking to that night but he felt like something changed. And then, as we were getting ready to say goodbye, he grabbed me by the arm and said something I’ll never forget: “Thanks for remembering my name.”

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Moses was keeping the flock for his father-in-law when he came upon a burning bush. Moses saw the strange and wonderful sight and chose to turn toward it. And that’s when the Lord declared, “Moses, Moses!”

What follows is perhaps one of the most well known stories from the Bible. God speaks to Moses through the burning bush and calls him to help deliver God’s people out of Egypt. But Moses, like almost everyone encountered by God in scripture, feels unsure of the call. “Well, when the Hebrew people ask about you, who should I tell them you are?” And God said, “I AM WHO I AM.”

            The Tetragrammaton: I AM WHO I AM. YHWH. Yahweh.

For many Jews, the name of God revealed to Moses is so holy, so precious, that it cannot be uttered by the lips of mere mortals. Instead, there are other names for God like Adonai and Lord. In the Christian tradition, we will call God Yahweh, but the name of God revealed by God is unlike anything else and demands a respect and holiness that is rarely seen.

The passage about Moses in the wilderness with the burning bush is usually interpreted in such a way that it is all about Moses. Moses is walking, Moses is given a command, Moses responds. But there’s more to the story than Moses; it is the revealing of God’s holiness.

We could not have found this name, this Yahweh, by ourselves. Even if we entered into a long and passionate search through prayer or any other spiritual discipline we are not capable of finding out whom God is on our own. God’s name had to be revealed. God alone can tell us who God is.

And what does God say, “I AM WHO I AM.”

The divine name is a non-name in the best sense. Can you imagine Moses returning to the land of Egypt, mixing and mingling with the Hebrew slaves and saying, “Don’t worry, I AM WHO I AM sent me to set us free.”

What’s the purpose of a name? Do we name individuals to distinguish them from others? Do we give names to children in order to stroke our egos in attempts to live forever? Do we give names to people in order to build them up or break them down? What’s in a name?

I’ve been in enough hospitals to hear doctors refer to their patients not by Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones, but by a room number (or worse: by their disease).

There are plenty of people who are judged simply because of the color of their skin, or their political persuasion, or their sexual orientation without their names ever being mentioned.

Names are important.

They are important in our everyday lives whether it’s learning the names of our neighbors, or our classmates, or our coworkers, or even the people in the pews next to us right now. Learning the name of the other, and actually using it, breaks down the walls and barriers that often lead us to judge rather than listen. Learning the name of the other prevents them from remaining a stranger. Learning the name of the other builds a bridge into something new instead of moving in the opposite direction.

God reveals God’s name to Moses in such a way that it bridges the divide but it also keeps the mystery. And I mean mystery in the most beautiful and theological way possible. We finite creatures cannot understand the infinite wonder that is I AM WHO I AM. There is a mystery to who God is simply because God is completely unlike us, but knowing how God reveals God’s name is important.

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If God is not given a proper name, God becomes a faceless unknown god with no story or history. But our God is a God of the story; our God has a name and is known by connections with other names.

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM” and God also said so much more. God said, “I am the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.” Over and over again we are reminded in scripture that our God knows God’s people by their right names; God calls them and us by such: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Hannah, Samuel, Saul, David, Mary, Martha, Peter.

God knows our names, and we should know God’s name as well.

If you’ve turned on your television or opened a newspaper this week you’ve seen some of the horrific and awful images coming out of Houston in the wake of hurricane Harvey. While some have taken to the internet to chastise and ridicule those in leadership about their lack of preparation or their delay in response, normal (and not-so-normal) people have done some heroic things so bring safety, life, and hope to the people who feel no hope.

And as I watched videos from Houston this week, as I saw boat after boat traveling up and down streets in attempts to bring people to safety, I was struck by one thing. In every instance of rescue, the rescuer began with the same question, “What’s your name?”

Think about that for a moment. While surrounded by signs of terror and fear, instead of commanding a person to leave their belongings or throw them over the shoulder, every rescuer looked in the eyes of the fearful other and asked the one question that would remove their otherness.

“What’s your name?”

From the burning bush God called Moses by name. Through words and flames Moses was changed through learning the name of God. I AM WHO I AM shows up in our lives at all kinds of strange moments, we could be shepherding, or sitting in a sanctuary, or waiting for rescue in a flooded house when the Lord calls out to us.

And we can trust I AM WHO I AM for the very same reason that Moses could. Because I AM WHO I AM is the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. Yahweh is the God who made a covenant with out ancestors, who delivered God’s people out of captivity in Egypt, who delivered us out of our captivity to sin and death. I AM WHO I AM is the God who was revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. I AM WHO I AM is the Spirit that lives and moves among us.

I AM WHO I AM is as mysterious as it is intimate. I AM WHO I AM comes to us in the intimacy of a piece of bread, and through the mystery of is being the flesh of Christ. I AM WHO I AM is as close as the person next to us and is as mysterious as the person sitting next to us. I AM WHO I AM is the name of our God who calls us by name. Amen.

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Devotional – Genesis 12.1

Devotional:

Genesis 12.1

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

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And that’s how it all began. The Lord said to Abram, “Go.” In the entirety of the Old Testament, there are few passages as important and theologically profound as God’s calling of Abram to go to a strange new place. We can talk about Jacob wrestling with the emissary from God by the banks of the Jabbok river, we can talk about Joseph saving the Egyptian people from certain starvation, we can even talk about Moses’ trials and tribulations with the Hebrew people in the wilderness, but this moment with Abram, this call, sets in motion the great narrative of God with God’s people.

The sheer magnitude of such a call cannot be overlooked. During the time of Abram’s life, almost everything was dependent on staying in one’s country and with one’s family. Most people spent their entire lives, from birth to death, within a handful of miles and rarely explored anything outside the normal and comfortable dwelling of “home.” And yet God had the audacity, the boldness, and the faithfulness to call Abram to do the unthinkable: go to a strange new place and leave it all behind.

This, in a sense, is akin to the call of all Christians. We might not be asked to leave our home country, we might not be asked to leave our families, but we are certainly compelled to enter into strange relationships and moments around us. It is easy to stay within a certain bubble throughout our lives and never stretch too far into the unknown. We can develop rhythms and habits that actively prevent us from encountering anything out of the ordinary. But God is extraordinary.

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Lent is a time for us to reflect and repent. We reflect on the many ways God’s has so graced us, and we repent for the many ways we have failed to positively respond to that grace. Lent is a time for us to all recognize the Abram within us, and wonder where God is calling us to go. What place are we avoiding because it makes us uncomfortable? What relationship have we let fall apart because it just felt like too much work? What frustrating behavior in a friend or a spouse or a child have we let percolate for far too long?

In some way, shape, or form God is calling each and every one of us to “go.” God calls us to “go” because our God is a God on the move. God cannot be relegated to a sanctuary on Sunday mornings at 11am, God is not absent until we pray for God’s presence, God is not sitting on a throne up in heaven watching us through a telescope. God moves, and so should we.

Devotional – Jonah 3.2

Devotional:

Jonah 3.2

“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

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The phone buzzed while I was still asleep. I fumbled with it as I attempted to read the number in the dimly lit room when I discovered that it was from an unfamiliar zip code. On any other morning I might’ve just ignored the call and let it go to voicemail, but for some reason I answered it and began with a sleep-ish “Good Morning.”

“Good morning to you!” the too bright voice on the other end began, “Taylor, I am the District Superintendent from the Staunton District in Virginia. I know you were thinking about pursuing an appointment as an associate pastor, but the bishop and cabinet have prayed over you and we believe that you gifts and graces fit best with a church in Staunton. You are being appointed as the pastor of St. John’s UMC. Have you ever heard of it?”

In a matter of seconds I had gone from resting soundly in a bed, to learning where I would be serving for the next few years. I remember rapidly thinking: “Staunton? Have I ever been there? I know it’s south of Harrisonburg, but that’s about it. Did they just tell me that I’m going to be pastoring by myself? What are the people like? What if they don’t like me? etc.”

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After finishing the conversation, and making sure that I wasn’t dreaming, I looked up the church online. I used google maps to see what it looked like from the sky and from the road. I used the church website to learn about all the pastors who had served in the past and what the church was currently focused on. I used local newspaper archives to see if the church had been in the news. A few weeks later I got in the car and drove to Staunton just to see what the church looked like from the outside and what the surrounding community was like so that I could see if I  could picture myself there.

God said to Jonah, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” Staunton is definitely not my Nineveh, but I can relate to the feeling of unease that Jonah had regarding his divine message; Going to a strange city with the task of proclaiming God’s Word is a frightening thing. How will the people respond? Will they hear what God is saying and believe? I still feel that uncomfortable feeling each week as I take the steps up into the pulpit and pray before the sermon begins.

Jonah was tasked with sharing a message with the people in a way that is similar to pastors preaching from pulpits. Similarly, all of us are given opportunities to share God’s message with the people around us: You might see someone alone at work and feel God pushing you to check on them. Perhaps you’ve been putting off a phone call to your son or daughter about how you want your relationship to change. Maybe you’ve been praying for a friend to start coming to church and now is the time to put your prayers into action by inviting them to come with you.

We all have difficult things to share with others around us. We can run away from the Ninevehs in our life like Jonah did or we can be brave and walk into the situations that God has given us a message to proclaim. The choice is ours.

The Advent of Abram – Sermon on Genesis 12.1-9

Genesis 12.1-9

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abrams took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord apprised to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

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Today we begin our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” Advent comes from the latin adventus which means “coming.” These few weeks are integral to the life of our church in the sense that we are preparing our hearts, minds, and souls, for the coming of God in Christ on Christmas day. This season lends itself to new beginnings, not just in our church, but in each of our lives. This morning we begin with the Advent of Abram.

Wow,” he exclaimed a little too loudly as he began gripping deeply into my shoulder. I found myself staring at one of the groomsmen from the bridal party. We had spent the better part of an hour attempting to line everything up for the wedding during the rehearsal and were now at the Mill Street Grill for the rehearsal dinner.

Wedding rehearsals are crazy; a conflation of friends and family gather together in a church they have never seen, and listen to a pastor they have never met, telling them where to stand and what to do. In no other aspect of ministry is the metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep more appropriate than when I plead with the groomsmen to pay attention and start acting appropriately. Things would go so smoothly if the groomsmen would act like the bridesmaids.

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Anyway, I was staring at the groomsmen when he began to lay on the compliments about how well the rehearsal went and how impressed he was with my disposition. “I can’t believe you’re a pastor! I mean, dude, you’re younger than me! And the way you pray, it sounds like you’re actually talking to God, and for real that was awesome.” I will admit that people are rather honest with me, particularly when the rehearsal dinner has an open bar.

A little later another young person from the bridal party came forward to introduce herself and began opening up about her faith. “It has been a long time since I was in a church, but hearing you speak and seeing how serious you are about all this has reignited my faith; If I lived around here, I would want to worship at St. John’s.”

Still later another young man from the wedding walked over and began speaking to me through jovial chuckles and slaps on my back. “Now man I have got to ask, that good looking girl with the blue eyes, are you two together? Cause if not I would love to get her number.” To which I replied, “Till death do us part” and I walked away.

Conversations as a pastor are often one sided: people bring their own sets of questions and baggage about the church and they are looking for me to confirm their suspicions. “Are you really allowed to be married?” “I never knew pastors could be so young” “What do you think about the Catholic church?” are all frequent elements of dialogue.

However, toward the end of the night, after the last call had been made from the bar, yet another groomsmen came forward. At this point I was getting tired of the same trivial conversations about how I knew the bride, what it takes to become a pastor, and how long had I felt called to the ministry. I am sure that I sighed as he came forward, but his question was unlike any of the others…

“How long have you been serving here?” “It’s been about a year and a half” “Is it still everything you thought it would be?” 

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To follow a call from God may be a costly matter, particularly when it leads to a lonely road. Abram was tasked with following the call of God to leave everything based on God’s Word.

One day, an ordinary day, the Lord told Abram to go from his country and his family to the land that God had prepared with the promise that God would make of him a great nation, he would be blessed, and his name would become so great that he would be a blessing. So Abram went.

The simplicity of “so Abram went” is one of the most deceptive phrases in all of scripture. The extraordinary nature of those three words are lost in Genesis 12 if we gloss over it too quickly. Abram was free from indecision, self-doubt, or stubbornness. His willingness to go is the opposite of what took place in the garden of Eden, and demonstrates a radical dependence on the providence of God.

Abram must turn his back on what had been the familiar and the friendly to go out toward the unwelcome and the unknown. His life would be forever changed in his decision to respond to God’s simple push, something that changed the history of humankind.

The call of Abram is not unlike the many callings that God places in each of our lives. It might not come in the definitive and spoken Word as if from the wind, but there are subtle moves and pushes that God does in order to bring about his will on earth. Many people prefer to stay where they are and as they are rather than to try hard to arrive at something different. Once they reach a level of comfort in their lives, they become content with keeping their eyes trained on the dirt instead of gazing up into the stars.

People of apathy appear throughout the bible, people who might have made their lives significant but never wanted to put their effort in to change. The likes of Esau, Jonah, and Solomon grew complacent with their blessings, and stopped dreaming about the future. Their failure was not generally aiming at anything bad as it was in the fact that they did not aim strongly enough at anything!

Abram could have been apathetic, but instead he responded enthusiastically. He took his wife, his brother’s son, and all his possessions and set forth toward the land of Canaan. When he arrived, God made it clear that this would be the place of his offspring, and Abram made an altar to praise the Lord.

Abram might have accepted the divine message with the momentary enthusiasm of a man who is proud to feel that he has been singled out for something special, but quickly cools when he finds where he must go.

Is is still everything you thought it would be?” As soon as I was asked images from the past year and a half floated through my mind – the baptisms, the deaths, the weddings. The tears spilt in my office, the dreaded phone calls from the hospitals, the shaking hands gripped in prayer. The kids laughing in the Preschool, the palms outstretched for communion, the knocks on the door that carried the weight of the world.

Has my enthusiasm cooled? Is this call to ministry everything I thought it would be? I always dreamed about the sermons that would get people to shout AMEN! from the pews. I dreamt about the people who I would help bring to the light of Christ, people whose lives would be radically transformed through God’s Word from this church. I dreamt about all the positive affirmations I would receive from people at the back of the sanctuary following worship.

The more time I have spent following this call from God, the more that I have realized how similar it is to Abram’s journey. Responding to God is not about the results, packed pews, lots of money in the offering plate, and people lining up to commit their lives to Christ. Responding to the call is about walking the lonely path, standing up for what is right, and calling all of us, including myself, to live better and holier lives. 

Moreover, the call is not just for pastors, but for all of us as Christians. God is not looking for people to say all the right things at the right times, people who will proudly place money in the offering plates, people who have perfect posture in prayer. God is looking for disciples who are willing to say “yes” when the world says “no”, people who fight against injustice, and go into the unknown like Abram.

God tells Abram that he will be blessed in responding to the call. The bible makes it very clear that a person can know and recognize their blessedness not when they have managed to get rid of all the dangers and risks and burdens, but when they have been given great and gallant strength to bear them.

The collective group can only move forward when an individual breaks the path ahead. On every level of life there must be a pioneer. Joseph had to dream dreams that went beyond what his brothers wanted, Moses had to stand before the Lord and plead for the forgiveness of God’s people, and Jesus had to push his friends further and farther than they ever wanted to go.

Only when people are brave enough to rise above the crowd, only when they set out on new beginnings, do they follow the roads of freedom for their souls.

The past week has been filled with frightening examples of our need to start standing up against the crowd mentality of our culture:

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We need a new beginning when it comes to the foolishness of sitting around a family table to give thanks, to then punch one another in the face while wrestling for Black Friday deals. 

We need a new beginning when it comes to a nation flocking to Facebook to express their opinions about what is going on in Ferguson, when they neglect to create real and meaningful relationships with those around them. 

We need a new beginning when it comes to our denomination meeting for a day of “holy conferencing” about homosexuality when we keep talking about it as an “issue” instead of it being about people. 

We need new beginnings all around us, and its up to people like you and me to listen like Abram and start walking down the strange new road.

Wherever Abram went he built an altar to the Lord. While responding to the call of God he recognized the importance of worshipping the Maker in whom we live for the true blessings of life. Having a new beginning implies understanding that worship is important for the cultivation of one’s soul. We gather here in this place week after week to hear the Word of God and respond to it in our lives, we gather to feast on the Word so that we can encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ to take radical steps of faith into new beginnings just like Abram.

Abram left it all for a new beginning in a new place. He traveled as the Lord commanded and wound up in the hill country on the east of Bethel. Many years later a young virgin named Mary and a man named Joseph traveled to Bethlehem for a new beginning in a new place. They traveled as the Lord commanded and wound up in a village without space at the inn, but brought a child into the world who changed everything.

Is it still everything you thought it would be?” the man asked. I thought for a long time before I responded, reflecting on all that has happened to our precious church over the last year and a half. “No, its not everything I thought it would be. It is so much harder. But thats why its worth it.”

Amen.

Go and Lo – Sermon on Matthew 28.16-20

Matthew 28.16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

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I disliked the orthodontist. Every month I would see the appointment on the calendar and I dreaded moving closer and closer to the date. I often thought of excuses that could get me out of going, but I would inevitably have to return at some point to have my braces examined, shifted, and adjusted. Going to the orthodontist was dreadful because I knew, no matter what, I would walk out with my mouth hurting. Going to the dentist was fine, you get you teeth checked and cleaned, but the orthodontist… he was going to put pliers into my mouth and adjust all the little metal bits that were stretching all over my teeth.

When I think back on the orthodontist, it wasn’t so much the pain that I dreaded, but the entire experience. I can vividly recall the frighteningly exaggerated images of people smiling with dreadful teeth in a “before” image alongside of the perfectly straight and whitened smile in the “after” picture. I remember the orthodontist doing magic tricks in the waiting room in order to calm down the terrified children that only went to further their anxieties. But most of all, I remember the poster on the wall by the chair I sat in every month.

When it was my turn to take the seat, I would be propped back and told to wait for a few moments. From that position I could only see one thing, month after month, mocking me from the wall: The popular poem “Footprints

I am sure that many of you are familiar with the poem; the text is often set above an image of a beach or a sunset. But in case you’ve never been lucky enough to experience the poem I will share it with you now…

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Footprints-

One night a man had a dream. He dreamed he was walking along the beach with the Lord. Across the sky flashed scenes from his life. For each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand; one belonging to him, and the other to the Lord. When the last scene of his life flashed before him, he looked back at the footprints in the sand. He noticed that many times along the path of his life there was only one set of footprints. He also noticed that it happened at the very lowest and saddest times in his life. This really bothered him and he questioned the Lord about it, “Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times of my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why, when I needed you most, you would leave me.” The Lord replied, “My precious, precious child. I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

I disliked the orthodontist, but I loathed this poem. Month after month it sneered down from the wall as if it was mocking me and challenging me to accept my fate. What kind of twisted orthodontist places a poem about being carried through suffering on the wall by the chair with knobs, pliers, and wires with a bright light hanging above as if to interrogate you? But there was the poem. Even when I closed my eyes I could still see the text, the badly cropped image of the footprints in the sand, never leaving me alone.

As I grew older I continued to resent the poem, perhaps because of my mental association of the words with the orthodontist, but I also came to dismiss the poem in light of its cliche and trite claims. To me, it always sounded like the type of thing that an incompetent and bored pastor would offer a grieving family in the wake of a loss.

I can’t stand the poem. But what drives me craziest about it, is the fact that its true. Even with its overly simplistic explanation, with its trite metaphorical conclusions, with its cliche affirmations, it is absolutely true. In the midst of our sufferings it can be very difficult to experience God’s presence, but when we look back, when we reflect on the troublesome moments of life, we can see that it was God who carried us through. “My precious, precious child. I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

Make-Disciples

The end of the gospel according to Matthew. Mark ends abruptly with the women running from the tomb say nothing to anyone because they were afraid. Luke ends with the people constantly praising in the temple for all they had seen and witnessed. John ends saying the gospel could not contain everything that Christ said and did. But Matthew’s gospel ends with the promise of the never-failing presence of Christ. 

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, as they had been told to do, and there on the mountain the saw the risen Christ and they worshipped him, though some doubted. And Jesus told his friends, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Even though they were in the presence in the resurrected Christ, even though many of them worshipped him, some doubted. There will always be those who question what they worship. Faith is never as perfect and clear as we like it to be; our ways our cloudy and the ways of God are a great and deep mystery. With worship and reverence, doubt is almost always waiting in the shadows, prepared to creep in at our most vulnerable moments.

However, doubt is not the opposite of faith. Show me a person without doubt and I will show you their lack of faith. Doubt helps fuel our faith because it encourages us to question and ponder. Doubt cannot be overcome with arguments, logic, speech, sermons, and reason; the best bible studies and preaching cannot erase our most fundamental doubts. Instead, we need to bring our doubts out of the shadowy recesses of our minds, and venture with them toward God in prayer.

And while some doubted, Jesus gave them their final commandment: Go therefore and make disciples. The church that is not going out, the church that is not on the move sharing the story, is not the trinitarian and believing church that Christ is talking to. We were not told to build a nice and beautiful church in the Shenandoah valley, show up for an hour on Sunday mornings, remember the same story over and over, surround ourselves with people who look, act, and talk just like us, and then return home until the following week. We have been told to GO! Share this incredible story with people who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

We often treat this building/sanctuary like our home. We find comfort here. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard some of you say, “When I sit in these pews, when I see the Good Shepherd stained glass, it feels like I’m home.” But my friends, if we hear anything that God is saying today it is this: home is on the go, home is where we meet God in others outside of this place. 

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Even when you feel like God is gone, when you feel lonely and abandoned by your Creator, God is still there. There are always days of faith, and days of doubt; days of peace, and days of war; days of joy, and days of sorrow. The end of Matthew reminds us that Jesus is still Emmanuel, “God with us.” Even when we share the story with someone and feel as if we have failed to convey the gospel, we are not alone. God is with us, even to the end of the age. We have been baptized into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we have been brought into the protection and possession of God, we are incorporated into the church and have been surrounded by a new family that has vowed to keep us close, raise us in faith, and nurture us in love.

The disciples’ journey to share the good news with the nations was not an easy adventure. The books of Acts reminds us again and again how often the disciples were harassed, ignored, and persecuted. I am sure that, at the ends of their lives, many of them wondered why God had abandoned them at their worst moments. Perhaps some of them were fortunate enough to hear those familiar words: “My precious, precious child. I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you saw only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.”

Many years ago a man named Samuel Morrison spent 25 years of his life as a Christian missionary in Africa. Maybe, while a younger man, he had heard the words that we read today: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. Maybe he felt the call of God to do exactly that and left behind the familiarity of home to be Christ’s body for the world.

After 25 years of giving it his all, it was time to return home. There had been days of great success where Samuel had brought many to the knowledge and love of God, but there were also days of great suffering and fruitlessness. When it came time to go home, he boarded his ship and bid farewell to his missionary field of Africa.

And so it came to pass that Teddy Roosevelt was on the same ship with Samuel Morrison returning from a three-week hunting adventure in Africa. Whether they knew about one another’s presence or not, they both sailed across the Atlantic back to the United States.

When the boat arrived in New York City, Samuel was thrilled to discover countless individuals who had gathered at the port with banners and signs echoing cries of “welcome home!” He even noticed a band playing on the dock in celebration of a successful voyage. Samuel’s spirits were high and he truly felt the love of God in his soul.

However, when Samuel made his way down the steps off of the ship, he was disappointed to discover that the crowds, and the signs, and the band were all for Teddy Roosevelt. Thousands had gathered to welcome home a man who had been hunting and killing animals for three weeks; Samuel Morrison had spent 25 years sharing the Word of God, and no one was waiting for him.

He weaved his way in and out of the crowd, disappearing into the shadows, and was quickly lost in the multitudes. Samuel Morrison felt abandoned by God. He found himself walking through the empty streets and alleys of New York praying and disappointed in God. “Why God? Why have you left me alone? Where are you now? I did what you called me to do. I left everything behind to follow your Son and this is what happens when I return home? I gave 25 years of my life for your kingdom! Where are you!?”

Silence. Samuel Morrison walked in silence after screaming out to the Lord and demanding to know what had happened. He continued to walk alone until he heard a small voice, as light as the wind: “I am right here my Son, and you are not home yet.

Amen.

Devotional – Genesis 12.1-4

Genesis 12.1-4

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those you bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

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“When you get appointed to a church the worst thing you can do is go visit the shut-ins,” said a professor of mine in seminary (who will remain nameless). “I am sick and tired of hearing about new clergy full of vibrant passion and energy wasting it on visiting the people who have already had their faith developed. Pastors form the past were responsible for them. The best thing you can do when you get appointed to a new church is not to visit the older shut-in members, but go visit all the members under the age of thirty. Now there won’t be many younger than thirty so it shouldn’t take you very long. That’s mission.”

I was flabbergasted. Here I was sitting in the hallowed halls of Duke Divinity listening to a professor telling us to do exactly the opposite of what I imagined my first few weeks at a new appointment would look like.

I believe he was wrong. The best thing that a pastor can do when he/she enters a new appointment is to visit the shut-ins and all the members under 30. In fact the best thing a pastor can do is visit with all the people that make up the local church community. The idea that the older congregants have already had their ministry does a disservice the goodness of God’s creation and the understanding that all of us make up the body of Christ regardless of age and experience.

I love the call of Abram as described in Genesis 12. Abram is called to abandon the security of his homeland, the comfort that comes with social and family support. Abram would need to rely on the Lord for guidance because this call upon his life tested, as John Wesley said, “whether [Abram] could trust God farther than he could see him.” And notice how short his obedience is described in the passage: “So Abram went.” No indecision, no debating the outcome, no weighing the pros and cons, just go. But even more than this I love the fact the the story ends with the simple affirmation that Abram was 75 years old when he departed from Haran.

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If God chose to establish the covenant with a 75 year old man who dropped everything to follow in obedience, just imagine what God can do with you, whether you’re 5 or 85 years old. Christian discipleship is not dependent on our age, but instead on our willingness to hear God’s call and go.

No matter where you are on your faith journey, whether you deeply committed and active in a local church, or if you feel like you’re on the fringes of a church community, whether you’re young in the faith, or you’ve been attending church for as long as you can remember, God has a place and a call for you. It takes all of us to make up the body of Christ.

So, what is God calling you to? What might you have to drop in order to go where God needs you?