Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Luke 10.25-30a

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”

I drove into the church parking lot on the 5th of July, got out of my car, and walked across the asphalt toward the sanctuary. The light of the early morning sun was shining through one of the stained glass windows, and everything looked beautiful. It was peacefully quiet, so I knelt down by the altar and prayed for God’s will to be done.

And then I got up and walked to my office to get working. I checked some emails, made a few phones calls, and eventually opened up my bible to start working on the Sunday sermon. Some time passed before the phone started ringing, my caller ID said that it was the church secretary calling for the other side of the building.

“What is it?” I answered.

“Umm,” she began. “I’m not sure how to quite put this, but, did you happen to see the woman in the bikini lying down in one of the church parking spaces on your way in?”

And that’s how it began.

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.

From the safety of the secretary’s office we peered through the blinds and assessed the situation. All the way in the furthest spot away from the building, the one closest to the main road, was a young woman on her back, wearing nothing but a bikini, and she wasn’t moving.

The secretary promptly elbowed me in the ribs, “You’re a pastor, aren’t you supposed to do something?”

“Of course I’m supposed to do something.” I said as I waited for someone else driving by the church to do something.

Now by chance a priest was going down the road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 

I felt pitiful as I reluctantly made my way across the parking lot, unsure of what was about to happen. Car after car came flying down the road while the woman was curled up on the asphalt, and not one of them so much as slowed down to see the scandalous scene. 

As I got closer I thought about picking up a stick, in order to poke her to make sure she was still of this world, but then she slowly rolled over on to her side and looked me right in the eye. She smelled like the basement of a fraternity house, the little clothing she had on had tiny little rips and tears in it, and she looked utterly perplexed.

For a time neither of us spoke, and then I remembered that I’m a pastor so I said, “Can I help you?”

“Honey, I could use a ride,” she said with a hiccup and a twinkle in her eye.

I slowly offered her my hand, and as I picked her up from the ground she said, “You’re wondering how I got here. Well so am I. The last thing I remember is being at the park for the 4th of July, partying, having a lot to drink, and then I woke up in someone’s yard over there. I tried to walk home, but I lost my phone, my wallet, and I think I’m still drunk, so I decided to take a nap here in this nice parking spot.”

“Okay” I said, “I’ll drive you home.”

Goodnews word on vintage broken car license plates, concept sign

The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 

We wobbled across the lot arm in arm and I could feel the eyeballs of everyone in their cars silently judging me as they drove by. It took an inordinate amount of time to make it from her napping location to my car, and we had to stop no less than three times for fear that she was going to empty out what she had put in the night before.

Eventually, I struggled to get her buckled safely in and asked if she would be able to guide me to her house. To which she replied, “You should have been there last night! The lights and colors were just like illuminating.”

So I asked again, and she responded by pointing with her index finger toward the main road.

“Wonderful,” I thought, “directions by charades.”

We reversed out of the parking lot and I followed her finger across town. 

At one point, as we neared the top of a hill, she slowly raised her hands up above her head and shouted, “Woooooo I love this part of the ride!”

When we passed by the police station, she sank as deep as possible into the seat until her feet were up on the dashboard and she let forth a burp that smelled of stale beer, hotdogs, and regret.

When we came to one of the stop lights on the journey, I looked across at my cargo and saw that she had fallen asleep so I gave a little tap on the horn to wake her back up.

We had a time finding her house as we went up and down streets which she either could not read or remember. But eventually, we pulled up in front of a nondescript house and she let out a sigh of acceptance.

The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, “Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you what more you spend.” 

We sat in the car in uncomfortable silence while she looked out the window at her future with a strange and detached look on her face.

“So, are you a pastor or something?”

“That’s what they call me on Sundays.”

“Do you do this kind of stuff a lot?”

“Honestly, not enough. What about you?”

“All the time.”

And with that she opened up the door and fell out of my car. She promptly picked herself up and staggered across the lawn and up to the front door all the while whistling a strange rendition of what I only realized later was the Star Spangled Banner.

She made it to the front door, and patted down on her non-existent pockets for her keys that she didn’t have, and began banging on the door until someone let her in. 

And then I drove back to the church.

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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Jesus ends his parabolic encounter with this great question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

And immediately we know how this story is supposed to work. The Samaritan is the good neighbor, and we are supposed to be the good neighbor to our neighbors. But, who really wants to be like that?

The Samaritan is not a very good example, at least he’s one that we should be careful of imitation. He’s a fool! He wastes his good money on a no good stranger in a ditch, gives him his own ride, and then has the gall to put him up in a swanky hotel without receiving anything in return. 

Moreover, Samaritans were outcasts. He is a loser who comes to deal with another loser. His actions are crazy and reprehensible. He lays down whatever his life might’ve been for someone he doesn’t even know, simply because he, as an outcast, has found solidarity with another in the dump that life has offered him.

The loser has found his truest neighbor, another loser.

Which, incidentally, is what the whole gospel is about – Jesus came to save a lost and losing world, by becoming lost and defeated. But in this world of ours, populated by losers, all of us are hopelessly committed to a version of the world dictated by winning, by being the best, by looking out for ourselves.

It would be funny if it wasn’t so tragic. But it is tragic, because grace works only in the midst of being able to recognize how badly we need it.

Or, to put it another way, if Jesus wanted to be a better motivational speaker he would’ve ended the parable thusly: Don’t be like the Samaritan; it will ruin your life. You will become a mockery among your friends, you will be a loser.

But Jesus isn’t a motivational speaker, he is the Lord.

Which bring us back to the question posed at the end of the parable: Which person was the neighbor to the man in the ditch? But what if there’s a better question… and what if that better question is this: Which person in the story is Jesus?

As we have said again and again the parables are primarily about Jesus and only secondarily about us, much to our disappointment. 

The central figure, contrary to just about every version of this story ever told or ever preached is not the Good Samaritan. He is simply one of three people who actually figures out what it means to be a properly good neighbor.

Jesus in the story, the one who demands all of our focus and attention, the one to whom the three are either neighborly or not, is the one down in the ditch.

Jesus is free among the dead – He is the one who, again and again, is with the last, the least, the lost, the little, and the dead.

If we want the parable to tell us to imitate the Good Samaritan, which it certainly does, then that’s fine.

But if that’s all the Good Samaritan is good for, then it isn’t very good.

Instead it leaves people like you and me feeling fine and guilty. We feel fine in terms of thinking about times we have been neighborly toward our neighbors, or it can leave us feeling guilty about the many times we haven’t.

When, in fact, the whole story is about how Jesus is the one down in the ditch. That he, the Lord of lords, has condescended himself to our miserable existence and can be found in the place of our own ditch-ness and suffering.

This story is but another resounding reminder that we don’t have to go looking for Jesus, or even that we have to be like the Good Samaritan to earn Jesus.

It’s that Jesus was willing to do for us what we could not, and would not, do for ourselves or our neighbors.

Jesus has moved in next door knowing that we, his neighbors, are a bunch of losers.

And that’s good news. Amen. 

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A Bad Foundation – A Wedding Homily

Psalm 118.1-2, 19-24

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. 

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For some strange reason we treat the Bible like a textbook – as something to be mastered. It’s why people are forever starting these foolish campaigns to “Read the whole Bible in a year.” I mean, good for you if you want to try it, but reading through the Bible in the year mostly guarantees that we will either resent it in the end, or we will have forgotten most of what we discovered.

Instead, the Bible begs to be considered, slowly, delicately, and above all, faithfully. 

When we encounter scripture this way, as servants of the Word rather than masters of the text, we begin to see things we never saw before.

It’s like the way you two can look at a building and see things that most of us miss. You have taken the time, slowly, delicately, and faithfully to appreciate what might appear insignificant to the rest of us. And yet you know, without very particularly important elements, this room would not exist, nor would it have stood the test of time as it has.

But I’ll get back to this room a little later.

For now, I want to keep our minds firmly planted in the strange new world of the Bible. For it is a strange new world, one that opens up to us something new whenever we enter it. Whether we’re standing on the banks of the Red Sea with Moses or we’re walking around Jerusalem marveling at the buildings and stones with Jesus, we find ourselves in this book and sometimes we’re not sure if we like what we see.

Of course, there are those good and holy moments of profound beauty and clarity, but the strange new world of the Bible is equally coarse, and broken, and flawed.

It is all of those things precisely because we are in it.

The writer of Psalm 118 has been steeped in the strange new world. The writer knows that God’s steadfast love endures forever even say, in the midst of exile, or persecution, or marginalization. 

It requires a willingness to believe in, or hope for, things not yet seen to keep a faith like that.

Which makes things all the more complicated when the Psalmist, inexplicably, declares the stone rejected by the builders has become the chief cornerstone. 

It’s probably better to let the two of you speak of such architectural language, but for the sake of your wedding I will just make the point that there is good reason to reject certain stones. The cornerstone, after all, is the one upon which the entire building will stand. Any imperfection or crack warrants a plain dismissal because it is simply not up to snuff.

And yet, we learn that the stone rejected for its brokenness is precisely the chosen cornerstone!

Or, to put it in frighteningly applicable words, your marriage has a bad foundation.

I, of course, do not mean to imply that there is something wrong with either of you. You’re just plain old sinners like the rest of us. However, you have come to this place, with these people, to stake your claim on a marriage upon which Christ is the broken foundation.

Marriage is strange; two people willing to make a covenant into something they cannot possibly comprehend. 

I like to put it this way: we always marry the wrong person.

Not because you two aren’t right for each other, but more so that we never really know who we’re marrying; we just think we do. Or even if we marry the right person, whatever that means, part of what makes us who we are is that we change.

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Brent, turn to your beloved bride and take in her beautiful glow. Jane is better than you deserve – she calms all anxieties, and keeps your life together, which we all know is a herculean task. Moreover, Jane adores your incredible family, and I promise she will be the most fiercely kind person you will ever meet.

But she will change. And yet, Brent, you are making a covenant to be for her knowing full and well that she can and will change.

Your turn Jane – take a good look at your handsome soon-to-be husband. Brent is better than you deserve – he regularly puts your needs before his own. He is filled with what appears to be a never ending amount of love to give. Moreover, he goes out of his way, particularly with his crazy travel habits, to make sure that you two always have time to be together. 

But he will change. And yet, Jane, you are making a covenant to be for him knowing full and well that he can and will change.

Marriage, being the remarkable and confusing thing that it is, means we are not the same person after we enter it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married. 

That is why, at the heart of what we are doing here, is the formation of a holy covenant binding you two, and all of us with you, together.

So take a moment now, and turn to take in this room. One of the reasons churches and chapels used to be designed this way is that the room is cruciform, it takes the shape of the cross. And to have everyone facing each other is a theological witness that we are to look upon one another through the cross. 

Sadly, this type of worship structure is all but gone. We’ve decided that its better to all stare at someone like me instead of looking through the cross at one another.

And so now I ask you two to look out on all who are here. Look at them through the broken cornerstone that is the cross. Your marriage is about more than just the two of you. Everyone here has already promised, they have covenanted, to hold you to your covenant. Their presence and promise is a testament to what they see, know, and believe about the two of you, and it is not something you can take for granted.

But now eyes and ears back on me.

When the three of us talked about today I asked you to consider what you thought you were getting into. And you said that marriage is a sacred thing to share in which we become totally bound to and with one another. Moreover you described it as a complete promise and connection to the person with whom you are now standing. And finally, you described marriage like a history: it holds and ties everything together.

Theologically speaking, those were pretty good answers. In fact, they might be the best. In the church we call it something like the diachronic witness – it is a declaration that moves through time in such a way that we are connected to the past, present, and future all at the same time. 

I’ve done a lot of weddings, and for the longest time I believed that where people got married didn’t matter. In a church? That’s fine. Out in a vineyard? Sure. But then you two invited all of us here.

Not only does it has this theologically intriguing style, it is also within the oldest college building still standing in the U.S. 

And, I should knock on wood, it has caught fire three separate times in its long history, and yet the exterior walls remained after each fire such that they were able to build again.

Thats a pretty good metaphor for a marriage!

What I mean to say is that at the cornerstone of your marriage, is the person of Jesus Christ was was rejected by those with whom he encountered for a great number of reasons. And yet it is precisely because of his brokenness, his humanity amidst his divinity, that he rests at the foundation of all of our lives and your marriage.

This bad foundation is thus what can and will sustain you through the journey of discovering the stranger to whom you find yourself married, because there is no such thing as a perfect marriage. Just as there is no perfect building. 

The broken foundation of the one who mounted the hard wood of the cross frees you from the marital expectations of the world and instead invites you into the mysterious covenant you are about to make. 

Marriage is strange but it is at the same time wondrous. It is wondrous because it is less about us and more about what God does in and through us. Which is why the psalmist has the confidence to declare that this is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.

Only a God of impossible possibility could have stitched your stories together into one. 

Only a God of reckless grace could look upon your flaws and all of ours and still say we are enough.

Only a God who sees perfection in imperfection would lay Jesus as the cornerstone of your marriage. 

This truly is the day that the Lord has made, which is why we can rejoice and be glad in it, with you.

And so, may the God of grace and glory, God of the beginning and the end, God of life, death, and resurrection sustain you in your marriage, knowing full and well that the foundation is bad, but that’s what makes it good. Amen. 

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Luke 13.1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners that all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen when the tower of Siloam fell on them — do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

Jesus gets pushed into situations like this all the time in the gospels.

Hey Jesus, what do you think about this – What happens to the woman who remarries over and over, who will her husband be in heaven? Hey Jesus, is this kid suffering because of his own sins and or because of the sins of his parents? Hey Jesus, are those people over there the worst of the sinners?

And, frankly, the questions make sense. We happen to live in a really senseless world and it would be nice is Jesus could illuminate for us the truth of what’s going on. Behind all the questions, whether the questioners are trying to entrap Jesus or not, is this inquisitive nature that is so at the heart of who we are. 

And this particular scenario aimed toward the Messiah about the worst sinners – is just so human.

The delegates at the Special General Conference were given opportunities to stand and speak in favor or against particular motions regarding the church’s opinion about human sexuality. 

There were, of course, the classic arguments – God made us male and female for one another, citing Genesis. And we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves, citing Jesus. There were even appeals to cultural shifts and being obedient to God’s word. 

It went on for days.

But now, about a month later, there are a few moments that have really stuck with me. I’ve previously shared about the exact moment of reaction to the Traditional Plan vote in which some people fell to the ground in tears while others danced around in celebration, a moment I believe will haunt me and the church for the rest of our days. 

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But there were two speeches made prior to the vote that have been ringing in my mind.

Early in the debates a woman from Pennsylvania stood to speak in favor of the Traditional Plan. She used the same talking points as other people had, but as her time was winding down she ramped it up a degree. She said that Jesus was very clear that it would be better for someone if a millstone was hung around their neck and cast into the sea than to continue living in sin.

And then she sat down.

For a moment the entire convention center just sat in bored and passive observation, but then the wheels starting clicking. 

Was she just implying that the time had come to drown gay individuals?

Within thirty seconds the room, largely quiet until this point, increased in decibels as people called for her to apologize for saying what she said. 

Apparently, to the woman who spoke at the microphone, homosexuality warrants consideration for a death sentence.

Later, in a what felt like a different moment, though similar to a degree, a pastor from the Great Plains conference stood up at the microphone to speak against the Traditional Plan. He too relied on some of the same talking points as other people had, but then he ramped it up a degree as well. 

He said he wanted to talk about biblical interpretation – Paul, he mentioned, talks more about women keeping silent in church, praying with their heads covered, not teaching men, women submitting to men, and women not wearing jewelry than he does about same-sex relationships. 

And yet, he continued, the proponents of the Traditional Plan support women in ministry even though Paul commands them to remain silent. 

The room grew very quiet at this point. Was he implying that we should remove women from places of pastoral power?

But then he went on to say it was interesting that the highest priority for items to be discussed at the conference were the pensions, even higher than the Traditional Plan itself. Which, is even more interesting given that Jesus said, “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, go and sell all you have and give it to the poor.” And he ended with this: If you really believe the Bible is clear, then I invite you to turn in your pension funds before you do anything else.

Apparently, to the man who spoke at the microphone, hypocrisy warranted greater reflection than other sins.

I’ve thought about these two moments a lot because it seems that we haven’t moved very far since the time of Jesus.

Self-righteous anger was with us in the beginning, and is still very much with us today.

Lord, do you think those Galileans suffered because they were worse sinners than other Galileans?

No. But unless you repent, you will die like them.

What a graceful and hopeful word from the Lord!

Robert Farrar Capon says that good preachers, and I would say good Christians, should be like bad kids. They ought to be mischievous enough to sneak in among dozing churches and steal all their bottles of religion pills, spirituality pills, and morality pills, and flush them all down the toilet.

Why? Because the church has drugged itself into believing that proper behavior is the ultimate pathway to God. And yet we don’t know what we’re talking about when we’re talking about good behavior because we constantly point at everyone else’s bad behavior.

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It’s why we are forever comparing ourselves to others in such a way that we are superior to their inferior morality, ethics, and even theology. 

The crowd’s conversation with Jesus about the greater sins in others hints at our continued fascination and obsession with guilt. 

If the God we worship were to punish and reign judgment down upon us for the sins we’ve already committed, then few, if any of us, would be left to worship in the first place.

But guilt, whether we feel it or we want others to feel it is like an addiction. And we Christians think that is good and right for us to think about and talk about guilt. It’s how more than half of the Christian world works! Make people feel guilty enough for how bad they are, scare them enough about the punishment of hell, and they’ll show up in droves to church on Sunday morning.

Right?

But the Bible, you know this book we keep talking about, it’s not obsessed with guilt like we are. No, if it’s obsessed with anything, it’s obsessed with forgiveness.

Christ died for us while we were yet sinners!

The Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world!

So what should we make of Jesus’ quip about the need for repentance? Of course there should be repentance. But repentance is supposed to be a joyful celebration, and not a bargaining chip we can cash in to get God to put up with us. 

Repentance is a response to the goodness God has done, not a requirement to merit God’s goodness.

God isn’t waiting somewhere far and beyond until we muster up the courage to fix all of the problems we’ve created. Instead, God meets us in our sins in the person of Jesus Christ. 

We seem to be stuck in a world in which we foolishly feel like we have to earn God’s love and mercy and grace. And, even worse, we do this in the most paradoxical of ways by pointing out the so-called greater sins in others. We want to blame everyone else for all of the ills in the world. It makes us feel superior. It makes us feel right.

And then comes one of the most confounding truths in the entirety of the Bible: God has consigned all to disobedience in order that God may be merciful to all.

We can certainly feel guilty about our sins, we probably should. But feeling guilty about our sins doesn’t really do anything. In fact, if feeling guilty does anything, it usually just leads to more sinning.

Attempting to overcome our sins, to leave them all behind, is a worthy goal but a far greater task than we ever really realize. 

The only thing we can really do with our sins that does anything, is admit them. Naming and claiming the truth of our condition is part of the necessary work of putting everything into perspective. When we can claim own our sins, when we can admit that we are no better than the crowds wanting to know who the worst sinners are, then we begin to see that we are all sinners and then we can celebrate knowing that those sins are nailed to the cross in Christ Jesus. 

Parading out the self-righteous judgments against others for their sins being worse than ours is to perpetuate a world in which the right get righter and the wrong get wronger. It leaves little to no room for reconciliation. And it is a complete denial of the good gift, the very best gift, that is God’s grace.

Grace works without requiring anything from us. No amount of self-help books, no number of piously repentant prayers, no perfect family or perfect job or perfect paycheck or perfect morality or perfect theology earns us anything. Grace is not expensive. Grace is not even cheap. It’s free.

And, I can’t believe I’m about to say this, grace is like manure.

It gets dumped onto the fruitless fig trees of our lives and gets all co-mingled in the soil of our souls. Manure is a messy and strange tool that is so completely necessary for our existence. Nothing is quite as ironic as knowing that another creature’s excrement is often required for us to eat. 

But, of course, we don’t like thinking about that. It’s why we so quickly identify with the man with the fig tree. What happens when something is no longer bearing fruit, whether it is a literal tree or not? We are quick to cut it down and replace it with something else.

And, assuming that we’re not growing all of our own food, we’ve grown remarkably comfortable with a world in which we don’t ever have to think about what was required for us to have food on our plates. We are either ignorant, or blissfully unaware, of the struggle that is at the heart of the production of our consumption. 

We don’t like thinking about manure being spread all over the ground so that we can have whatever we want in our kitchens. 

Its the same reason we like to think about Easter without having to confront the cross.

The cross is the manure of grace that is spread into and throughout our lives. It is a frightening thing that we’d rather ignore or dismiss, and yet without it we are nothing. 

And still, the manure that is grace is offered to our lives even when, and precisely because, we are not bearing fruit!

We worship a God of impossible possibilities, a God who offers more chances than we ever deserve, a God who willingly drops manure on our lives over and over again.

The cross is like manure; it is good and bad and ugly. 

But it is also our salvation. Amen. 

Devotional – Psalm 34.8

Devotional:

Psalm 34.8

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.

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Last night, after we finished dinner, my wife and I got out the Robin costume for our 18 month old Elijah. The Halloween decorations had been up for weeks, we were stocked with candy for the neighborhood kids, and the time had come to begin trick-or-treating. And, wonderfully enough, this was to be Elijah’s first ever outing on Halloween and the excitement was palpable in the air.

However, once we made it outside we realized that no one else was combing the neighborhood. And, not wanting to be that family, we patiently waited in our front yard until we saw at least one other costumed child before we guided Elijah up to our neighbor’s front door. He only made it to ten houses last night but he ran down every sidewalk with the kind of excitement that leaves parents smiling and giddy with joy.

When we returned to our house, we set up chairs in the front yard and waited to pass out candy to kids from the neighborhood. And for the first fifteen minutes Elijah was fine with sitting on my lap, but at some point he remembered that people had strangely handed him pieces of candy and he wanted it. Lindsey and I quickly agreed that it would be fine for him to have one piece of candy (he’s maybe tasted chocolate all of three times in his life) and when he crunched down on his Kit-Kat bar his eyes lit up like fireworks. For the next fifteen minutes all he said was “mmmmmm” and “more.”

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In some strange way, the kind of excitement and joy that my kid experienced last night is the same kind of excitement and joy that we are privileged to experience in the church. The fleeting sugar rush that entered Elijah’s blood stream eventually disappeared, but the table that we feast at as a community of faith has an everlasting significance. The hope and wonder Elijah had while walking up to other homes is the same hope and wonder we discover when we actually do the good and hard work of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

The challenge of a holiday like Halloween is that there is so much build-up and when its over, its over. But with God we discover something that is truly good; we find a refuge offered without cost.

We can find happiness in this life through experiences of glee and moments of wonder, we can decorate our homes for all of the pertinent holidays, but true happiness comes when we discover that the Lord is good, and that one holy day with God is more powerful than any holiday.

The Story (First Sermon for Cokesbury UMC)

Romans 12.1-2

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

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Years ago there was a young man who was about to embark on his second appointment in the United Methodist Church. He had gone to the right seminary and learned from the best professors. He had served his first church faithfully, but the time had come for him to follow his call at a new church.

However, he didn’t know much about where he was being sent. All he knew was the name, John Wesley UMC, and the location, off in the middle of nowhere Georgia.

For four years the young man had worked hard for his first church, he had made just enough mistakes to know what was right and what was wrong, and when he drove into town with the moving van full of his belongings, he went to the church before he went to the parsonage. Filled with excitement and hope he drove out on the old country road but when he arrived at the right address there was no church. So he doubled back and went down the empty road until he found a very disheveled looking building with the biggest and the most hideous tree he had ever seen blocking the sign and most of the church.

The place needed some work: a new roof, new paint, new everything really. But above all things, it needed to have that tree uprooted. The young pastor stood on the front lawn of the property and the wheels started clicking in his mind… How many people had driven past the building without evening knowing it was a church? How could they let such an ugly tree blemish God’s house? And then he knew what he needed to do.

He got in his car and went back to the parsonage, but instead of unpacking all his belongings and getting settled, he was on a mission for one particular box, the one labeled: chainsaw.

Hours later, with sweat dripping from his brow, the pastor stood proudly on the front lawn with the church now being completely visible from the road. The marquee shined with a new brilliance, the side of the building was available for all to see, and the old gnarled tree was perfectly arranged in neat even logs stacked in the back.

A few days passed and the young pastor continued to day dream about how many more people would be there for his first service simply because the tree was gone. And he was working on his first sermon when the telephone rang; it was the District Superintendent. For a fleeting moment the young pastor thought that maybe the DS was calling to congratulate him for taking the initiative to beautify the church, but the DS said, “I hope you haven’t finished unpacking, because you’re being sent to a different church.

You see: the church was named John Wesley UMC for a reason. Back in the 1730s, John Wesley himself had planted that tree during his mission to the colony of Georgia and the community built a church around the tree to commemorate where the founder of the movement had once served. For centuries the tree stood as a reminder of all the Wesley stood for, the roots were reminiscent of the need for a deep love of the scriptures, and its shade was enjoyed like the mustard bush from the time of our Lord.

And that young, foolish, and brazen pastor had chopped it down to the ground.

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I haven’t been here long, but I love how we have these open windows in the sanctuary, windows through which we can see the church property. And I want to be clear: no trees have been chopped down since I arrived in town!

Stories are remarkably important. They contain everything about who we were, who we are, and who we can be. Stories held within a community help to shape the ways we interact with one another and how we understand what it means to live in this world. We tell stories all the time to make people laugh, to make people cry, and to teach important lessons about life.

We are the stories we tell. And today we live in a world of competing narratives; people and organizations are constantly bombarding us with information regarding what we are to think and, perhaps even more frighteningly, who we are to be.

We only need to think back to the recent presidential election to see how much it further divided us as a country, we only need to turn on the television to see how violence and anger and fear are separating us as a people, we only need to get online for a brief moment to see how broken this world really is.

Every single day we are thrust into a world that tells us how to think, speak, and act through stories.

But God’s Word, through the apostle Paul, looks out to the world and dismisses all of it. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Do not let your favorite reality television show dictate how you interact with other people, do not let the news channel send you to the corner to cower in fear, do not let your political proclivities limit your relationships with those who are different from you.

Instead, be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Open your eyes to the wonder and beauty of scripture such that it speaks new and good and true words into your lives. Let the story of God with God’s people wash over your like the waters of baptism such that you can take steps into a new life. Feast on the bread and the cup at this table such that it will bring you to the upper room from long ago and you can hear Jesus speak into your ear: “You are mine and I am thine.”

We are the stories we tell.

When the stories of the world become the only stories we tell then we fail to be the church that God is calling us to be. If who we voted for, or what team we celebrate, or what show we love is more important than the living God, we are no longer the church at all.

Paul proclaims that we can be transformed by the renewing of our minds by telling the story that is our truest story. The story of God in the flesh, of a baby born in a manger, a child who sat at the feet of the teachers, a man who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, healed the sick, a savior who turned the world upside-down, a Messiah who died on a cross, a Hope that broke forth from the tomb three days later.

That is our story.

Two weeks ago I sat down at a Chili’s in Hampton with four people from Cokesbury Church. We introduced ourselves and got to know one another. I asked questions in order to find out what the church was like, and they asked questions to find out whether or not the church would like me.

It was a hope filled conversation as we casted visions about what the church can be. But if you had been with us an hour earlier in the midst of Annual Conference with all of the other United Methodists from Virginia, you would’ve felt the whiplash.

According to the ways of the world, Mainline Protestant Christianity is floundering in the United States, worship attendance is plummeting, and churches are being closed regularly. Christianity has lost its status in the political arena, we are becoming biblically illiterate, and young people are absent from the reality of church. At Conference we went over all the statistics, we learned about how the average age of a member of a United Methodist church is 57. We learned that most churches have attendance that has stayed the same or dropped even when the communities surrounding the churches are growing. And we learned that most people who claim to be part of a United Methodist Church invite another person to worship once every 33 years.

By the standards of the world, the church is between a rock and a hard place.

Well then thanks be to God that Jesus is the solid rock upon which the church stands! Thanks be to God that we don’t need to be conformed to the ways of the world, but instead we get to be transformed by the renewing of our minds! Thanks be to God that the Lord is not in the business of statistics and analytics, God, our God, is in the business of making all things new!

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The story of Cokesbury Church is entering a new chapter. God is breathing new life into this church, and not through a new pastor, but through our willingness to know and believe that God will provide. We can name and claim this because our church story is part of God’s great story.

And at the heart of what it means to be the church is a willingness to learn one another’s stories. We learn one another stories by gathering here for worship, by meeting together to study God’s Word, and by going out to serve the community. We learn one another’s stories so that we can cherish the trees of our foundation while at the same time look to the future with hope because God is doing a new thing.

In time I will come to learn your story. I will discover who you are, what you believe, how you think, and how you act. And in time you will come to learn my story, how I felt called to the ministry, what I believe, how I think, how I act. But in learning one another’s stories we will be doing so much more. In fact, in telling our stories we will discover how we are caught up in God’s great story.

Friends, we are more than the stories of the world. We are more than the statistics and the estimates and the analytics. We are God’s people and this is God’s church!

And this is why we read from the story that is our story. The story of scripture speaks greater truths than simple affirmations or facts. In it we learn about who we are and whose we are.

According to the ways of the world the church is in a difficult place. But I’m not worried about any of that, I’m not worried about anything because my hope is not in me, my hope is not built on the ways of the world; my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteous. I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name!

Christ is the solid rock upon which this church stands; all other ground is sinking sand.

We can believe in the future of the church because our faith is in almighty God! We are here to share our stories so that we might learn more about God’s story. The ways of the world, the stories competing for our allegiance, will falter and crack and fissure, but God’s story is eternally unshakable.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Tell the story that is our story! Remember your truest identity in Christ Jesus. Listen for who you are and whose you are in the Word of God. Remember your baptisms and be thankful. Come to the table and see that the Lord is good. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds! Amen.

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Bonus Sermon – The Bad Shepherd

I try to have my sermons finished by Thursday afternoon before being preached on Sunday. This allows me to truly experience Sabbath on Fridays and forces me to think about the scripture throughout the beginning part of the week rather than procrastinating until the end. But every once in awhile, something will take place during the week that necessitates a sermonic change.

Last Friday morning I woke up, read over the sermon one last time and it just didn’t feel right. With everybody online going crazy about the executive order for religious liberty and the House voting on a bill that would repeal and replace most parts of the Affordable Care Act, I felt like God was calling me to trash what I had written and start over. So I did (You can read that sermon here: “The Politics of the Church.“)

But I had already written an entire sermon and crafted a whole worship service around a central theme! So I asked the congregation to pray for me as I offered the new sermon, written later than usual, outside the normal connections through our whole service. And, because I wrote two sermons last week, I have included the sermon that wasn’t preached below…

 

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

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“Pass the wine.” The party was getting on into the wee hours of the morning, and everyone was having a great time. The food was good and plentiful. The wine flowed profusely. The stories kept bubbling forth. “Remember that time we walked into town and everybody just kept staring at us, waiting for something to happen?” “Or what about the day we ate by the beach and talked about the future.” “I’ll never forget the looks on everyone’s faces when we walked out of town that one time and wiped the dirt of our feet.”

It was a great party.

There’s something about the stories and the food and the wine that help blind us from the reality of what is to come. On Thanksgiving we fill our bellies in denial of all the money we are about to spend during the Christmas season. On New Years Eve we clink the champagne in ignorance of all the mistakes we made and we believe that this year will finally be the one we get it all right. On Easter we tell stories about the resurrection in hopes that hope will not fade in the weeks that follow, but the normalcy of life slips in and our hallelujahs don’t have quite the force they did a few weeks ago.

But what did the host think during the party? While the friends were passing around the bottle and giggling with memories of the last few years, what was going through his mind? Was he buzzed with the joy of his compatriots as he walked around the table filling their glasses? Was he nostalgic about all they had been through and in denial of what was going to happen in just a few hours?

Did he think about the words to Psalm 23?

Throughout the gospel narratives Jesus is forever quoting and referring to the Old Testament, and in particular the Psalms. The psalms, it seems, are his prayers. They are familiar and well known and comforting. But while he sat at the table that night, that last night, when he told them the bread was his body and the wine his blood, I wonder if he thought about the 23rd psalm when he looked across the table and into the eyes of his friend Judas: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Full disclosure: I don’t enjoy preaching on well-known texts. Give me some obscure passage from Zephaniah or Joel and I will get up here and proclaim it with everything that I’ve got. In fact, I rather enjoy preaching on the passages we don’t know because we can all come to the text with a fresh perspective. But when we read a passage that everyone knows, a passage that we’ve all heard more times than we can count, the challenge becomes that much greater.

Like John 3.16 – For God so loved the world… As soon as the words hit the air most of us immediately wander in our minds to black tape under the eyes of sport figures, scratched notations in bathroom stalls, and college evangelists trying to save souls. And because of this we forget that John 3.16 is part of a much bigger story of Jesus meeting in the late hours with Nicodemus.

Instead, I could randomly flip open the bible, pick any verse, and I think we would receive it better than the well-known texts because we would not bring any of our own baggage to God’s Word.

But today we’ve got one of the most well known, perhaps the most well known passage in all of scripture: Psalm 23.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

And already most of you have tuned out whatever I’m about to say. Because the moment we hear these remarkably familiar words, our minds jump back in time to memories of this passage. We start thinking about the last time we read the passage out-loud at a funeral. We remember sitting down on our Grandmother’s lap and hearing her repeat the words without looking in her bible. We are transported back to our childhood Sunday school classrooms where many of us were forced to repeat the psalm, out loud, from memory, in front of our peers.

Perhaps for some of us, the mere mention of the psalm elicits a feeling of joyfulness and peace. We think about the green pastures and the still waters and whatever stress we’ve got going on in our lives starts to fade away.

And maybe for some of us, the mere mention of the psalm elicits a feeling of strange and bizarre reflection. The green pastures and still waters are nice, but why in the world is God preparing tables for us in the presence of our enemies? Our cups are overflowing with many blessings, but why can’t we dwell with the Lord forever, and not just while we’re living?

It is remarkably difficult to approach this text with open eyes because it already means so much to so many of us.

But what did it mean to Jesus?

That night before he gave himself up, the evening of the Last Supper, did he think about the table being prepared before him with an enemy? Did he still believe that his cup overflowed with grace and peace and mercy even though one of his closest disciples was about to betray him for a couple pieces of silver?

In the midst of stress, fear, and anxiety the psalmist offers a strange alternative: the refreshing peace found in the Good Shepherd.

But is the Lord really a good shepherd? Yeah, God will set us down in the green pastures, and will lead us beside the still waters; whatever that means. God takes us down the right paths for his name’s sake, and even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil.

Really? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I have the kind of faith such that I could walk through a place or a time in my life described as the valley of the shadow of death and not be afraid. I get afraid every time I get a phone call from an older member of the church on their way to the hospital, every time I hear my son fall to the ground with a loud thud, and even when I’m hear at night in the sanctuary and all the lights are off.

And the rod and the staff? Those aren’t meant to be tools of comfort like a quilt or a duvet. Rods and staffs are meant to wring us and knock us back on to the right track when we’ve gone astray. And where does God eventually lead us? To a table prepared just for us in the presence of our enemies.

We love this psalm, we pray it and read it and hear it all the time. But sometimes, God sounds more like a bad shepherd than a good one.

Sometimes we hold it so close that we don’t think about what it really says, or even what it might’ve meant to the one we call the Good Shepherd.

I want to have the faith of the psalmist, I want to be able to look at the darkest valley, and the rod and the staff, and the table filled with my enemies with hope and joy. But this psalm isn’t really about me or us, nor is it about what we think of the Shepherd. It’s a psalm about who God is, and what God does for us, his sheep.

God’s protective power, God’s immense grace, is so great, so unimaginable, that God has the audacity to prepare a table before us in the presence of our enemies. A good shepherd would prepare the table in the presence of our friends and our families; not with the people who want to destroy us. God’s table, provided for us, is not the table we would choose for ourselves. Like a middle school cafeteria, we would rather sit with the people we like than with the bullies eyeing us from across the room.

We read in the psalm that God transforms every situation. But we take that to mean that nothing bad will ever happen to us. A good shepherd, we think, would protect us from every type of evil. But no, our bad shepherd says there will be deathly valleys and enemies galore; the difference is that our shepherd has done something that prevents them from destroying us.

We will absolutely experience hardships, and fear, and stress, but the bad shepherd is with us in the midst of them.

Our shepherd is only a bad shepherd in that we think we know what God should do for us. We abstract this psalm from the reality to which it speaks and make it out to be some kind of shield to protect us from everything in life. What makes our bad shepherd a good shepherd is that our shepherd will never abandon us.

Being a disciple is a way of life that we cannot know outside of being converted to it. For taking up our cross to follow Jesus changes every little thing about the way we live. It means that even though we talk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil because Jesus has defeated the very death that casts a shadow in our lives. We cannot live without that fear unless we’ve been converted to a way of life that constitutes knowledge of the bad shepherd who takes care of us.

Sitting down with the very people who hate us is not something we could do without being converted to it. All of us, sinners that we are, would choose the other table. But God in Christ chose to sit down at the table where his betrayer sat, offered him the same bread and cup that we are offered here in church knowing full and well what he was about to do.

Being a Christian is possible only through the grace of God empowering us to follow His Son on the way. We cannot do it on our own accord, and it cannot take place without a radical restructuring of what we know and what we believe. We cannot follow Jesus without sitting at the table, elbow to elbow, with the people who would rather betray us.

And, again, that makes God sound like a pretty bad shepherd. What kind of God would willfully send a child to the table with bullies? What kind of God would use a rod to knock us back into line? What kind of God would ignore the rest of the guests to make sure our cup was overflowing at all times in the middle of a party?

The very same one who was willing to take on our flesh in the incarnation. Our ­bad shepherd really is the good shepherd because Jesus came to live and to die and to live again for the sheep. Christ is the one who makes possible the goodness and mercy that follows us all the days of our lives such that we can sit at the table with hope, because Christ did the same thing for us. Amen.

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The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (of Annual Conference)

Every year the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church meets for holy conferencing. This is an event whereby lay and clergy representatives from the entire conference meet to discuss pertinent matters facing the denomination in our particular geographic locality. Additionally, the Conference has a memorial service for clergy and lay representatives who have died in the previous year, we learn about campaigns and initiatives like “Imagine No Malaria”, we celebrate the licensing, commissioning, and ordination of clergy, and we worship together.

Every Annual Conference is filled with moments of holiness in addition to sinfulness. We are a church of broken people; therefore we fall prey to our own desires and forget to pray for God’s will to be done. At times, our “holy conferencing” brings out the best in us and the worst in us. Below are three categories of experiences I had from last weekend. And let’s go backwards…

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The Ugly

After joining together in one voice to proclaim the powerful and dynamic hymn “And Are We Yet Alive” (The traditional first hymn to be used since nearly the beginning of the Methodist movement), we jumped right into the business of Annual Conference: The presentation of the Rules Committee. This makes complete sense of course, we need to re-establish the rules of conference every year before we get to the important stuff, but this year we spent the first 45 minutes of our time as a denomination arguing about the color of our name badges.

Depending on one’s conference relationship, there are areas that are forbidden from being voted upon. For instance: last year I was a provisional elder which meant that I could not vote during the clergy session, or on constitutional amendments. But now that I am “an elder in full connection” I am granted to the right to vote in the clergy session and on constitutional amendments. In order to streamline who can vote on what, different name badge colors were distributed. And this resulted in chaotic responses in the forms of Robert’s Rules of Order. Specific representatives (both lay and clergy) were livid not about their name badge color, but that the conference did not trust them to know what they could and could not vote on. (even though it took ten minutes for the clergy to figure out where they had to sit in order to vote during the clergy session [something we do EVERY year]).

During the name badge debate I was sitting next to a couple that were attending Annual Conference for the very first time. I witnessed them shaking their heads in astonishment and disbelief for most of the 45 minutes and when all was said in done I heard them say, “No wonder people complain about coming to this every year.” What does it say about our church to new people when we can go from a beautiful hymn to an argument about name badge colors in the blink of an eye? What does it say about the future of our denomination when our first priority becomes the color of our name-tags?

Later during the conference a motion was made from the floor to propose a resolution regarding the recent tragedy in Orlando, Florida. The resolution called for all churches in the conference to be in prayer for the victims and their families from the shooting, to pray for the greater LGBTQI community, and to pray for our Muslim brothers and sisters so that they might not be lumped into the violent identity of the shooter. While the majority of the conference voted in favor of the resolution, there were a decisive number of people who vehemently opposed it. We might not think alike about the LGBTQI community or the Muslim community, but the least we can do is pray for them in the midst of such a horrific tragedy. So what does it say about our commitment to loving others the way Jesus commanded while some of us would rather remain silent?

Finally, our conference had the good fortune of hearing the proclaimed Word from Rev. Eun Pa Hong who is the senior pastor of Bupyeong Methodist Church in Incheon, Korea. Rev. Hong is one of the most dynamic leaders in Korean Methodism and under his leadership for the past 35 years his church has grown to include 5,500 people most Sundays. Rev. Hong spoke in his native tongue and was translated into English while he preached. And while I walked around later in the day, I overheard delegates complaining about having to listen to someone speak in Korean. What does it say about our church, when some cannot stand to witness the diversity that makes us who we are? What does it say about our future when we’ve forgotten the most beautiful part of the Pentecost story?

 

The Bad

The church continues to decline: Lack of new professions of faith, lowering numbers of baptisms, and more churches closing. Or to put it the way I heard someone else reflect on it: “Annual Conference is all about death.” The report of the Conference Statistician offers bleak prospects for the future and causes anxiety for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. At the same time we were reminded over and over again about the power of fear, and how is has limited us as a denomination without offering hope for new vitality. The frightening statistic that the average United Methodist invites someone to church once every 38 years was mentioned on more than one occasion without any examples of how this statistic is being combatted.

Moreover, fears about the recent General Conference were made apparent through muffled conversations, uncomfortable responses to the General Conference report, and the apathy toward institutional change. More than ever, Annual Conference focused one what we have to fear, than what we have to be hopeful about; it felt more like crucifixion, and less like resurrection.

 

The Good

There is nothing quite like singing together in one voice with thousands of other United Methodists. As Garrison Keillor has noted, singing is part of our DNA. And so, when at the beginning of Annual Conference, thousands of us joined together with those faithful words: “And are we yet alive, and see each others face? Glory and thanks to Jesus give for his almighty grace!” you can’t help but feel the Spirit’s presence. When we mourned the loss of life over the last year, when we sat in profound silence in memory of the victims in Orlando, when we watched as new pastors were licensed, commissioned, and ordained, we felt the Spirit’s presence. Worship is always part of the “good” of Annual Conference. In worship we remember that God is God and we are not. In sermons and prayers and hymns we hear God saying, “Yes!” even though our hearts say “No.” In worship we let our baggage and preconceived notions start to fall away and we truly become Christ’s body redeemed by his blood.

Additionally, we celebrated the fruits that came from our commitment to “Imagine No Malaria,” we rejoiced in new faith communities that are planting seeds of faith across Virginia, and we recognized the 20th anniversary of the Order of the Deacon. All of these events witnessed to our commitment to serve the needs of others and the ways that we are making God’s kingdom manifest here on earth.

On Thursday night, before Annual Conference officially began, a group of United Methodists gathered for Pub Theology led by the minds behind the podcastCrackers & Grape Juice.” We met for an informal conversation about theology, toxic Christianity, and the future of the denomination. During that gathering a number of young people made it clear that they believe in the future of the United Methodist Church even while some of us remain anxious. In their willingness to articulate how their local churches helped nurture them in the faith, their witness blessed us all. Later we heard from voices largely missed at Annual Conference and all of us were reminded about the strange and beautiful diversity of this thing we call “the church.” As I was leaving, a young man told me (with a smile on his face), “This is what Wesley must have felt like when he gathered with his friends.” It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that.

On Saturday evening I was privileged to join an Ordination class of some of the most gifted pastors and deacons I have ever met. We submitted ourselves to the yoke of a stole over our shoulders and covenanted to serve the church with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. I witnessed countless people rise when names were read before the conference and I was reminded about the great communal effort required in identifying effective clergy. In the ordination service I saw the bright future for our church; not in our bureaucratic commitments to Roberts Rules of Order, not in our debates about nametag colors, not in our frightening statistics, but in the local church where the heart of God is revealed each and every day.

I have hope for the future of the United Methodist Church because the new clergy leaders believe in the power of the gospel to radically transform the world. They recognize that the local church is where disciples are formed (not Annual Conference). They see the bread and the cup of communion as our spiritual food necessary for the journey of faith. They have given their lives over to this strange and wondrous calling and will bear fruit for years to come.

But most of all, I have hope for the church because it does not belong to us. It belongs to God. The more we remember that we serve the risen Lord, the more we learn to pray for God’s will and not our own, the more our church will become what God is calling us to be: the body of Christ.

 

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